But some people do, and Chris Oberste is one of them.
While a graduate student at Georgia Tech, Oberste researched and developed a new technology to manufacture reinforcement materials for plastic parts. Shortly thereafter, he and co-founder Lewis Motion launched a company, WEAV3D®, to bring it to market – and GRA became one of the first investors.
Rebar for Plastics™ is the shorthand for what WEAV3D’s technology produces. Just as steel bars and mesh add strength to concrete and masonry, the structural “lattices” produced by the WEAV3D machine do the same for plastics and other materials.
HOW IT’S DIFFERENT: A reinforced plastic component has a set amount of stiffness and strength – its rigidity and the amount of load it can withstand is fixed.
But WEAV3D can engineer and produce a component that has different degrees of stiffness and strength within different areas of a single component. They call this “tunability,” meaning the technology can tune the physical properties of different areas within the lattice (by varying lattice density and reinforcement materials).
Another differentiator: Components made with WEAV3D’s reinforcement lattices also weigh less than traditionally formed components. And the WEAV3D material costs up to 75% less than traditional, laminate-based composites.
WHO WOULD BUY THIS: Auto manufacturers, for one. Says Oberste: “The industry has a unique challenge, in that they need lightweight materials for components to satisfy fuel economy regulations. Yet it’s hard to make lightweight components at a high volume.”
The WEAV3D system has many other potential markets – aircraft, sporting goods and construction products, to name a few. This fall, the company announced that a maker of trenches that hold cables for utilities and rail systems will use WEAV3D technology to produce better reinforcement cages inside the polymer concrete used to make the trench.
Made from a patent-pending material, the WEAV3D-produced cages will add strength to the trenches. They’ll replace steel reinforcement cages, which don’t bond well with polymer concrete, and which rust if exposed.
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS: “The machine itself is basically a cross between a textile weaving loom and continuous-lamination equipment,” Oberste explains. An array of thin, tape-like materials made of fiber-reinforced thermoplastic are fed into the machine – but from two directions, not one.
“We control how the tapes are woven and how tightly spaced they are, to form the weave,” Oberste explains. “As the machine does the weaving, the plastic in the tape material is heated, so that it bonds to the other tapes around it and forms the lattice structure.” Better still, the technology is significantly faster than conventional tape-laying processes, especially when it is used to form multiple layers of material simultaneously.
WHERE’S THE SWEET SPOT: It’s between no reinforcement and premium reinforcement – the uniqueness of WEAV3D technology places the company right in the middle. Using WEAV3D, manufacturers can strengthen parts with a single lattice component able to handle varying load demands – but at a fraction of the cost of other structural reinforcements.
HOW TO EMPOWER THE CLIENT: While WEAV3D knows how to optimize the density of its reinforcement lattice parts, the company is developing software to give the manufacturing client that capability. “Eventually we will reach the point where the customer can define variables, like the geometry of the part and the force applied on that part, then just press a button,” Oberste says. “After that, the machine will generate the lattice that meets those requirements.”
Such software, he says, is still a couple of years away, though “we’ll have a version of that capability sometime next year.”