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Prodrive doubles size of composites manufacturing facility

03 October 2011

Technology consultancy and precision-manufacturing specialist Prodrive has doubled the size of its composites facility, moving from motorsport-sized manufacturing batches to runs of several thousand. The expansion is driven by the company’s recent contract wins with three highly-demanding manufacturers of premium sports cars. When added to established defence, marine and aerospace customers, Prodrive’s composites business now has an order book worth more than £40m.

Meeting the challenge of rapidly growing volumes required a combination of capital investment, recruitment and process improvement. “It would have been easy to simply expand the factory, but that would not have addressed the fundamental challenge,” explained Prodrive’s composites manager Ian Handscombe. “Clearly we did need more space, but the key to making this a sustainable business geared-up for the growing industry-wide use of composites is to take this opportunity to work on improving our processes and finding new ways of helping our skilled people to work more efficiently.”

The biggest investment has been in two additional high-spec autoclaves, together worth around £800,000. The larger unit accepts parts up to 2m diameter by 4.3m long; the other 1.5m by 2.3m long.  As well as allowing substantial panels to be manufactured in one piece, they open up new possibilities that could further improve high-volume production efficiency: with 350oC and 200 psi now available, the use of thermoplastic composites becomes possible, with much faster cycle times and easier recycling.

£500,000 has been invested in a new, five-axis milling machine, complete with vacuum clamping and dust extraction. It now takes only 20 minutes to trim a large post-mould component that previously took four hours by hand. “Supplementing the manual processes with appropriate automation has increased throughput, allowed us to ensure consistently high first-time quality, and we have reduced waste by around a third,” says Handscombe.

A second machine for the NC-cutting of raw sheet material (pre-preg) is being introduced, with CAD software to create optimised nesting of pre-cuts direct from component CAD data. The NC machine also allows automated cutting of thicker material (up to 2mm) to reduce the number of layers required. “This is one of the enablers for the manufacture of body-in-white (vehicle body) components,” says Handscombe. “It’s more efficient and gives us a surface that is ready for painting.”

A dedicated lacquering unit with a sand-blasting facility to prepare parts has been commissioned and a second clean room has been added, with the prospect of a third in the near future. An enlarged manual trimming and fitting workshop handles those jobs unsuitable for automation. All together, floor area has more than doubled to 32,000 sq ft.

Prodrive’s recent expansion makes it one of the largest UK suppliers of high-quality carbon composite components. Growth has been driven by the automotive industry, but Handscombe sees opportunities in other industries too. “Because we are linked to Prodrive’s design and development teams, we can take a fresh look at how to take time and cost out of meeting our clients’ technical  goals,” he says. “For example, we can use carbon to produce early stage prototype tooling that is cheaper than the traditional methods and which can be modified as the design evolves.”

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