While manufacturers look to their bottom line, breakthrough technologies which have the potential to improve running times, reduce waste and decrease down time (and which work) are apt to be seized upon.
For many years, challenges associated with splicing brittle carbon fibres have hindered further strides in development. Airbond Splicers is an award-winning business in Wales with a global reputation as the design and production team behind robust, efficient and effective industry leading textile splicers.
The company has used its traditional splicer technology and cracked the decades-long problem with carbon fibre splicing, in the process refocusing the business and perhaps ushering in an exciting new era for carbon fibre and its applications across industry sectors.
The splicer challenge
Splicers in one form or another have existed in the market for decades, but their use for brittle materials like carbon fibre or glass has proved problematic. While carbon and glass fibres can be various sizes, they are delicate.
This causes issues when attempting to join them, says Graham Waters, managing director of Airbond: “These fibres are very strong when extended, but weak when bent sharply. Pneumatic splicing uses compressed air (at over 1,000mph) to intermingle a multiplicity of filaments – this involves violent transverse forces and bending.”
Ultimately, bending carbon and glass sharply is counter-productive and causes damage and waste rather than a well-wrapped joint, and then there are the latent health and safety issues.
“There is the potential for serious issues through flying debris and, of course, waste of very expensive hi-tech fibres - not forgetting the potential to short-out the lights and nearby computers, because carbon is electrically conductive.”
Airbond solved the problems with brittle carbon fibre yarn splicers by creating units with larger chambers which operate at lower pressure, offsetting the potential for increased complexity in units by focussing on novel designs and simpler construction.
The company’s dedication to research and development and a firm eye on the end user experience, coupled with Waters’ passion for solving challenging technical and scientific problems, is ushering in a new era for carbon fibre production. This small team is rapidly emerging as industry leaders in carbon fibre splicing technology, revolutionising the industry with a raft of carbon fibre splicer patents, with more exciting developments on the horizon.
Waters is the brains and energy behind Airbond’s strides forward. At 79, the Imperial College alumnus shows no sign of easing up, indicating he has always set a high bar with an approach he terms the “Cheshire cat philosophy”, one where Airbond’s splicer units become so simple that “only the smile remains.”
When the business was faced with the challenge of growing market share in a splicer market dominated by a single competitor, Waters decided to go “around the mountain”. While competitors concentrated on maintaining their grip on the traditional textiles market, he invested time, expertise and considerable energy in refocusing the business, directing the team’s efforts on solving the tricky task of carbon fibre splicing.
The result has been the development of ground-breaking innovations in carbon fibre splicing and two prestigious Queen’s Awards for Enterprise - the most recent of which was honoured at a reception in Buckingham Palace. With the addition of a cutting-edge £240,000 3D printer and further splicer units due to hit the market imminently, this innovative Pontypool-based SME is on the brink of rapid growth.
The splicer evolution
Universally used and well-established in the textile industry for cost savings benefits, splicers use compressed air to join yarns or repair breakages. Splicing yarn creates smoother and stronger joints than knots and can transform quality, reduce waste and improve production efficiency.
Traditional splicer technology was adopted by manufacturers of larger textile equipment and is now recognised as an industry standard. European companies such as Savio and Murata went on to make smaller dedicated splicing heads which could be fitted, one per thread position, on machines which handle the same yarn specification day-after-day.
According to Waters, portable hand-held splicers took a different evolutionary path: “These units needed to be able to switch from splicing fine silk to heavy synthetics, and this is the area we focused on.”
Following the recruitment of a new graduate as a researcher in 2004, the team designed and developed their traditional splicers for continuous filament synthetics like nylon and polyester, high-twist constructions like carpets, ultra-fine yarns, fragile yarns like silk, tyre cords and large yarns. However, there was lack of room to grow market share in this traditional sector.
“I realised through extensive research that there’s no great future in simply making splicers for the traditional textile trade, particularly when the market is saturated with the ‘big boys’.”
While no match size-wise for traditional textile splicer market leaders, Waters saw the albeit difficult, but unexploited opportunity in carbon fibre splicing, realising the business had the agility and collective ability to solve the long insoluble problem of splicing brittle carbon fibres.
The drive towards innovation, Waters says, is down to good old-fashioned intellectual arrogance: “When faced with a competitor with a monopoly, the only way forward was to solve a problem where they had failed. We had already done it once with our textile splicers - we’ve been making the world’s best carpet-yarn splicer for years. So good in fact, that there have been plenty of copyists producing inferior versions of our units.”
Waters’ plan was to craft his splicers for the composites sector, he says: “While the team is relatively small, our ideas were big. When it came to splicing carbon and glass, we had the courage to give it a go.”
The push into new markets meant substantial and lengthy research and development culminating in heavy investment in 3D technology. This has ultimately streamlined development, expediated prototype iteration, slashing time to market.