Company profile: FORMAX and carbon multiaxials

Since FORMAX’s formation in 1999, this privately-owned company has developed and manufactured a wide range of carbon, glass and aramid multiaxial fabrics. In this article it outlines its latest developments.

Set of Fibrefusion completed units lined up ready to be dispatched to the customer.
Set of Fibrefusion completed units lined up ready to be dispatched to the customer.

Traditionally, FORMAX’s core business was centred around the marine and boatbuilding sector. The company was involved in the production of numerous high profile super yachts and performance racing hulls and became well known for its high quality, bespoke multiaxials.

The benefits of using carbon reinforcements in marine applications are clear; they can significantly reduce the weight of structures such as masts, sandwich panels and other deck components, whilst enhancing the mechanical performance of the boat in terms of speed and performance.

For performance reasons, carbon fibre is increasingly the fibre of choice for many demanding applications, and this is reflected in the remarkable growth of FORMAX’s sales of the material. The company currently attributes 50% of its sales to carbon fibre-related products and has become one of the largest global suppliers of carbon reinforcements.

From its Leicestershire, UK, production facility, FORMAX currently runs 15 machines, producing over 6000 tons of glass and 700 tons of carbon fibre, in addition to a range of other fabrics utilising aramid fibre, a ­selection of natural fibres, and a number of different thermoplastic fibres.

Developments in automotive

As the market for carbon reinforcements continues to develop at a rapid pace, FORMAX remains focused on the provision of high performance solutions. The company places a heavy emphasis on creating and developing new technologies and continues to invest in new machinery, the expansion of testing facilities, and the creation of a new Innovation Centre.

... FORMAX is engineering carbon fabrics that can be processed quickly, and with the minimum amount of waste, both being critical factors for the successful utilisation of carbon fibre in automotive applications.

The Innovation Centre is at the forefront of FORMAX’s development of new materials. It is this commitment to develop innovative and novel fabrics that has enabled the company to win contracts with a number of automotive OEMs. Working closely alongside these customers, FORMAX is engineering carbon fabrics that can be processed quickly, and with the minimum amount of waste, both being critical factors for the successful utilisation of carbon fibre in automotive applications.

The ability to achieve a Class A surface finish is also extremely important for some carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) automotive components. Standard carbon multiaxial fabrics, even with a stitch bonded surface veil, tend to leave an unsightly stitch pattern on the finished component. FORMAX’s ability to laminate surface veils and tissues onto multiaxial fabrics solves this issue and greatly improves the surface finish on components.

Lightweight carbon fibre multiaxials can also be designed to be highly drapeable, enabling them to be formed into complex moulds with the minimum amount of cutting. They can also be optimised for the production of preforms – either through the application of epoxy powder to the surface of materials or through the use of thermoplastic stitching threads, which melt during the preforming process to bind the preform together.

During the production of Lamborghini’s Aventador carbon supercar, FORMAX was asked to develop a range of balanced materials that would combine superior drapeability, outstanding structural properties and an innovative method of binding the materials in a preform structure prior to injection.

FORMAX’s product engineers worked closely with Lamborghini’s design team to define the most suitable fabrics for the production process. The resulting carbon reinforcements were refined many times before the final optimised version was selected and used to reinforce the chassis of the car with outstanding results.

Future developments

FORMAX now has the capability to support customers with specialist Drape Simulation Technology. Created by ESI, this specialist software enables the optimisation of fabric design by predicting how a material will perform during any given manufacturing process.

Once the data regarding the geometry of the mould, fabric style and production process is collated, the software is able to predict how well a fabric will drape and highlight areas of difficulty such as creasing and any permeability issues. This allows the user to calculate how the fabric will perform and greatly reduces the trial and error process often associated with fabric selection, especially when mould geometries are particularly complex.

FORMAX is working with a number of companies utilising the Drape Simulation Software and as a result customers receive an entirely unique fabric for their application with greater quality prediction and production speed.

Pitch fibres

FORMAX has developed a new range of multiaxial pitch fibres based on the high modulus biaxial Mitsubishi Dialead fibres. They were able to convert the high performance pitch fibres to create +/-45 biaxials that offer up to five times the stiffness of traditional PAN fibre based biaxials.

FORMAX’s Pitch Fibre Biaxials demonstrate very low levels of thermal expansion and are suitable for any application that demands ultra-high modulus or high levels of thermal stability such as satellites, satellite dishes and telescopes.

Bespoke sporting applications

Carbon fabrics are used extensively in the manufacture of sporting equipment such as tennis rackets, bicycles, kayaks, skis, surf and snowboards. The majority of these applications require a specially engineered fabric to ensure the components are as light weight as possible to enhance their performance.

For one wind-surf customer, FORMAX has developed a +/-30 ultra-lightweight carbon biaxial farbic at 75 g per ply, which gives the customer the optimum combination of longitudinal and torsional stiffness.

Diverse applications

Thanks to the bespoke nature of FORMAX fabrics and the company’s willingness to embark on challenging projects, the range of applications produced with their carbon fabrics has become increasingly diverse.

One example is Fibrefusion, which designs and manufactures components made from carbon fibre and other high-performance reinforced resins. The UK based company works within a variety of industries such as medical equipment, aerospace, motor sport and marine applications. For the past eight years, FORMAX has supplied Fibrefusion with carbon materials for the production of X-ray table tops that are produced at their Falmouth production plant and sold all over the world.

Fibrefusion estimate they have produced and sold 3,500 X-ray tables to date using FORMAX’s materials. Carbon fibre was ­specified as the most suitable material to construct the tables from as it reduces the patient’s absorption of radiation during the procedure. FORMAX recommended a lightweight, 185 g/m2 carbon biaxial fabric as it was a weight critical part and approximately 1 m2 of fabric is used per table top. The table tops are manufactured on a mechanical press and then profiled on a router. This process allows for significant volumes to be produced with greater accuracy, repeatability and speed.

Steve Neal, Director at Fibrefusion, comments: “We have enjoyed a great working relationship with FORMAX over the years. I originally selected their carbon products based on the superior quality and performance of the fabrics.”

A second example of FORMAX’s work is the Dokaae Tower. FORMAX worked with Premier Composite Technologies (PCT) in creating the supersized clock hands for the tower in Mecca. The overall height of the tower is 601 m, making it almost the world’s tallest tower, second only to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The clock hands were designed as sandwich structures featuring an outer layer of FORMAX’s prepregged glass cloth, a structural laminate of unidirectional (UD) carbon prepreg and secondary reinforcements using FORMAX carbon biaxial fabrics. 

The product range
The following FORMAX carbon reinforcements are available:
  • multiaxial fabrics, including unidirectionals, +/- 30 biaxials, +/- 45 biaxials, 0/90 biaxials, triaxials, and quadaxials;
  • fibre types from 3k through to 50k, including both PAN and pitch fibres;
  • fabric weights from as low as 50 gm/2 and up to 1600 g/m2 with a variety of different fabric widths from 25 mm through to 1600 mm.

  Recycling waste

There is a significant percentage of waste inherent in the production of multiaxial fabrics. For FORMAX, this waste added up to nearly 600 tons of glass and 60 tons of carbon fibre last year. How to utilise this waste effectively is something the company has been addressing for a long time.

As a result, FORMAX recently launched a new recycling initiative at its UK production facility. The installation of two specialist machines means the majority of its carbon and glass waste can now be reprocessed. The recycled materials are suitable for a variety of structural and non-structural applications across a range of industries and a number of FORMAX’s customers are currently manufacturing components from the new fabrics with great success. ♦  

This article will be published in the July/August 2013 issue of Reinforced Plastics magazine.

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