Belfast Telegraph

Weave firm Axis Composites goes hi-tech

By CLARE WEIR

A university of Ulster spin-out company is bringing Northern Ireland’s weaving heritage firmly into the 21st century by producing carbon fibre fabrics for the manufacture of aircraft and space vehicles.

Axis Composites was established two years ago to bridge the gap between 3D advanced materials research at Ulster’s Engineering Composites Research Centre at Jordanstown and the commercialisation of 3D woven materials for advanced composites. Now the company’s 3D loom is ready to produce the first prototype 3D carbon fibre fabrics.

Up until now Axis has created and tested the 3D woven materials in a virtual environment but the company is now able to manufacture prototype 3D fabrics to demonstrate the special properties of the textiles.

A traditional loom has been rethreaded with individual strands of carbon fibre in preparation for its ‘recommissioning’ — the loom has the capacity to place precisely 2,304 stands.

The carbon fibre coming off the loom may have the appearance of woven ‘cloth’ but is in fact stronger than metal, yet lighter.

Just like flax, the carbon strands can be woven into a multitude of different widths, thicknesses, patterns and strengths and the third dimension, which comes from the through stitch, can also vary in thickness, width and pattern.

Already firms like Bombardier are making wings and other aerospace parts for planes from composites in Belfast.

Dr Alistair McIlhagger, director of Axis Composites, said that the materials will have many applications in the manufacture of aircraft, space vehicles, surveillance drones, wind turbines or protective garments.

“For example, aircraft are traditionally built from strong metals such as aluminium and titanium but these materials are also heavy,” he said.

“Rising fuel costs mean that aircraft manufacturers are constantly seeking new materials to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. In essence, clever design will reduce service costs.”

Steven Kirby, managing director of Axis Composites, said that he is confident that the project will create many high-quality jobs.

“Carbon fibre is already widely used in the aerospace industry but in a laminated form where multiple layers of the material are heated under pressure to produce a composite.” he said.

“Although our initial focus is the aerospace industry, there are many exciting possibilities where this new advanced material can be used.

“In fact, think of any industry and you’d be hard pressed to come up with one that doesn’t have a need for a high performance material that is lighter and more durable than what is currently used”.

Commercialisation manager at the University of Ulster, Dr John MacRae added that the industrial textile heritage associated with the project goes back centuries.

“It is nice to know that the traditions, skills and machines developed locally by past generations can still create jobs,” he said.

“It is nicer still to look through an aircraft window and realise that the technology which is keeping the wings together has its roots in the thatched cottage around the shores of Lough Neagh hundreds of years ago,” Dr MacRae added.

STORY SO FAR

Ulster’s strong weaving tradition dates back over 300 years. Originally it was a cottage industry around the shores of Lough Neagh. With industrialisation, weavers moved to Belfast, Lisburn and Lurgan and by the late 19th century, Belfast had become the linen capital of the world. Instead of the usual threads spun from plants such as flax, cotton and wool, the University of Ulster is using strands of advanced fibres such as carbon and basalt.

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