Composites: Laying Up Plies of the Future

By Vidya Vishwanathan

Finished Plies
Noah Beaty, a member of AIAA and DBF, led the Composites Workshop and is placing the finished plies under debulk. Photo: Kirby Koch/Engineers’ Forum

Composites have been known to be the material of the future, quickly replacing metals, such as aluminum, for structures, especially within the aerospace field. One of the more notable uses of composites in the aerospace industry has been by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which garnered a lot of attention for the push towards the creation of a more environmentally friendly aircraft.

One of the major advantages of composite materials over most metals is the low trade-off between mass and strength. Composites have been known to be significantly lighter than their metal counterparts, which enables lowering manufacturing and fuel costs, while retaining the same and often improving structural strength and integrity of the aerospace structure.

The Virginia Tech chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) paired with Virginia Tech Design, Build, Fly (DBF) to hold a Composites Workshop in mid-November 2015. The event was led by Noah Beaty and Tyler Dixon, both members of AIAA and DBF, who gave an in-depth introduction to the benefits of and the procedures involved with composites in the aerospace industry. Beaty explained the properties of a composite, such as the significance of its matrices, the typical materials used in its makeup, and resins used during production.

The Composites Workshop allowed for all the participants to experience the process of laying up plies and to manufacture a simple project. The participants were each given two plies of fiberglass composite material that they impregnated with an epoxy resin that caused the material to become translucent. They then placed the material over a mold and applied pressure to conform the plies to the contour of the form. The wet molds were placed under debulk, a process that involves covering the molds with a vacuum bag and compressing it by removing all the contained air for 24 hours. This allows the plies to effectively shape to the mold and harden the resin. The final product was a thin, yet sturdy coaster that the participants could take home as a souvenir of their experience.

Siwani Regmi, a freshman in general engineering, partook in the event. When asked about her involvement in the Composites Workshop she said, “I thought the event was really well organized…I learned a lot from it and it taught me just how much composites are a part of our daily lives. It was really cool to actually be able to make one and see the process of how to do it.” AIAA has been hosting the event for the past few years and the immense success of the workshop, especially among the members of the AIAA VT chapter, will most likely constitute it continuance for semesters to come.