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September 26, 2019

Fiber artistry: Reinforced polymers weaving their way into the auto industry

Written By: Adam Malecek


Fiber-reinforced polymers are appealing to automotive manufacturers because of their high-performance mechanical properties, low cost, processing advantages and light weight, which enables improved fuel efficiency.

Sara Simon
Sara Simon

And the results of Sara Simon’s research could enable those manufacturers to produce better vehicle components using fiber-reinforced polymers.

“We know that the mechanical performance and dimensional stability of fiber-reinforced polymers are directly correlated with the fiber microstructure. Being able to predict this microstructure is a key element in the automotive design process,” says Simon, a mechanical engineering PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Processing causes the fibers to significantly change their configuration, which results in highly variable properties within the finished part. Controlling the process-induced fiber microstructure first means that engineers need to understand the underlying physics of how the fibers move. A promising tool in this endeavor is particle-level simulation due to its ability to model individual fibers.

At UW-Madison, researchers in the Polymer Engineering Center have developed a particle-level simulation to model fiber motion, and within the center, Simon’s work focuses on obtaining reliable experimental data to validate this simulation tool.

“Thanks to these findings we can advance into using our tool to improve current commercial software, which does not account for single-fiber motion,” she says. “Since automotive manufacturers need to verify each component’s performance by simulation analysis, there is a great interest in continuously optimizing simulation approaches to produce better parts.”

Simon is currently collaborating with Volkswagen on her PhD research. She is analyzing and optimizing a new foaming injection-molding technique that will allow automobile manufacturers to produce significantly lighter-weight components without having to make expensive upgrades to their traditional machines.

Recently, her research earned her recognition at the Society of Plastics Engineers 2019 automotive composites conference and exhibition in Novi, Michigan, on Sept. 4. Her paper, “Direct fiber model validation: orientation evolution in simple shear flow,” received a best paper award.

Simon’s advisor is Mechanical Engineering Professor and Polymer Engineering Center co-director Tim Osswald, who holds the Consolidated Papers Foundation Chair sponsored by the Mead Witter Foundation.