Indiana’s Industrial Revolution

Source: The Wall Street Journal 

By WSJ. Custom Studios

The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race is just around the corner, but many spectators may not realize some of the innovations happening behind the scenes. Indiana’s $4 billion racing industry is looking at how to make faster, lighter racecars by using materials called advanced composites.

Advanced composites, which are made from carbon fibers, are starting to be used by all sorts of manufacturers—from automotive to sporting goods to aviation—to build better products. Thanks to large investments from the state of Indiana, the U.S. Department of Energy and Industry stakeholders, Purdue University will launch the Indiana Manufacturing Institute, dedicated to exploring how advanced composites can create more energy-efficient technologies.

Stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum, advanced composites could transform auto racing, says Stefano De Ponti, chief executive and general manager of Dallara USA, which designs and builds all of the world’s IndyCars in Indiana. “IndyCars are the fastest and most durable cars in production,” De Ponti says. “They are capable of sustaining speeds of more than 200 miles an hour for two hours or more.”

Because of the high stress generated by endurance racing, today’s IndyCars are primarily made of steel. Advanced composites, though, have the potential to make them even faster by making them both lighter and safer for the driver. The added fuel efficiency will even reduce pit stops during a race, De Ponti adds.

The challenge, he says, is that carbon fiber products are expensive to make and haven’t been adequately tested to determine if they could stand up to the punishment of a 500-mile race. That’s where Purdue’s new research facility comes in: Funded through a public-private partnership which will be part of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), a $259 million national initiative to design the next generation of advanced composite manufacturing.

A Manufacturing Breakthrough

Carbon fibers can be made into almost anything. The fibers are manipulated based on the types of properties a manufacturer is trying to incorporate in a product, such as its weight or stiffness. For example, the advanced composites that encapsulate Boeing 737 airplanes are extruded in long sheets that are wrapped around a tube like tape to create the fuselage. “They give us a design dimension that we’ve never had before,” says R. Byron Pipes, a Purdue engineering professor and director of the new institute.

Unfortunately, those new design dimensions don’t translate easily across different types of manufacturing. “This is an empirically driven industry,” Pipes says. “To innovate in manufacturing, you have to try things out.” Usually that means designing and building prototypes, testing them and making adjustments before they are ready for mass production. That can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

The institute will eliminate much of that time and expense by designing and testing new products with computers. “Simulation can transform the industry by performing the research that we couldn’t do empirically because we simply can’t afford it,” Pipes adds. “Now we can try all sorts of things without having to build anything.”

Broad Implications

Indiana, which boasts the second-largest automotive manufacturing industry in the nation after Michigan, is uniquely positioned to benefit from advanced composite research, says Ian Steff, senior advisor for science, technology, and advanced manufacturing at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC). But it’s still in the early stages. The state of Indiana is investing in this new composites initiative because the innovations generated there will touch a broad cross section of manufacturing processes and sectors, says Steff, who also serves on the institute’s board of directors on behalf of the state.

Nearly one-third of Indiana’s gross state product comes from manufacturing, the highest percentage in the country, Steff adds. And the new designs and technologies developed at the institute will be applied to a wide range of manufacturing. “When you look at the variety of strategic sectors that will benefit from this research, you can see that advanced composite manufacturing will revolutionize the landscape of Indiana for years to come,” he says.

It will also retain and attract world-class talent from the automotive, aviation and aerospace industries to the state. “Indiana is a place where billion-dollar industries come to solve billion-dollar challenges,” Steff says. “Advanced composites are one of those billion-dollar industries.”