High end sports products manufacturers using carbon fiber have traditionally employed thermoset polymer-based air bladder forming technology. The alternative method, which binds carbon fibers with thermoplastic, has advantages over thermoset polymers which are only now beginning to be exploited by the industry. Astro Tech’s (9.1/B16) solution is an automated process that can produce one thermoplastic carbon frame every 15 minutes.
Thermoplastic makes recycling carbon frames much easier. It’s tougher than thermoset and has better impact resistance. It also allows the achievement of consistent manufacturing quality in automated processing. A continuous fiber structure is retained with thermoplastic as the matrix, says Astro’s General Manager, Samuel Hu. “This way the frame can be more sustainable, but keep the structural properties similar to thermoset polymer. Pre-preg material still consists of carbon fiber and thermoplastic and still has the same layup design to get our required fiber orientation. We first make two halves of the mold, similar to a monocoque process, then join them. Doing it this way means we don’t break any fibers.”
A major bugbear for carbon fiber frame manufacturers has been the amount of labor needed in the manufacturing process. “Due to this being such a labor intensive industry, we’ve had to move from place to place. Starting off in Taiwan, we moved to China and then to Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma,” says a company representative. “And regardless of the location, we have been using the same handmade process and the same materials which cannot be mass produced. This was the motivation for us to come up with a new automated system to mass produce thermoplastic carbon frames.”
The significant cost savings that will accrue has made this move into both a new material and a new manufacturing regime necessary for such a large frame manufacturer where large orders are standard. While the upfront investment cost is high, the boost to overall profitability is significant.