ARE NATURAL FIBER REINFORCED PLASTICS WORTH IT?
In October 2021, we presented the AquaSpeeder, which we had developed on behalf of a private investor, to the public. However, the project is far from over for us. Even at the beginning of the development phase, the idea to further optimize the due to its electric propeller drive already environmentally friendly AquaSpeeder had been on our minds.
The hull of the AquaSpeeder is built from fiberglass composite using a lightweight construction method — a process in which glass fibers are embedded in a matrix of epoxy resin. They then ensure that the forces that act on it are introduced into the component in a targeted manner. The result is a highly stable yet lightweight hull.
However, glass fibers have the disadvantage that they are neither renewable nor biodegradable — in contrast to natural fibers.
Are natural fibers the solution?
They are, in any case, an alternative that can and should be considered more closely.
As the name suggests, natural fibers are of both animal and plant origin, with the majority of plant fibers used in fiber composites being from plants such as flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, sisal and abaca.
Natural fiber reinforced plastics, or NFRP for short, have so far mainly been used in the automotive industry, e.g. for the interior paneling of doors. They offer high rigidity with low density. In short: they are extremely resilient and light at the same time.
Here’s a small density comparison:
Steel — 7.9 g/cc.
Fiberglass — 2.7 g/cc.
Carbon Fiber — 1.8 g/cc.
Flax fiber — 1.4 g/cc.
Since hemp, flax and the like are renewable raw materials that — depending on the plant — can be grown on almost every continent, a constant supply could be guaranteed. They cause less CO2 during production and also bind CO2 from the atmosphere while the plant is growing. Natural fiber reinforced plastics offer good thermal and sound insulation. Up to 100% of the cutting waste that occurs in the processing can be reused.
In addition, resins are now available with 50% of the carbon content derived from plants, which in turn can save 50% of CO2 compared to conventional resins.
Even if you include the post-production processing steps, natural fiber composites have a carbon footprint that is around 50% lower than fiberglass composites.
So, what’s the catch?
To put it simply: since flax fibers, for example, offer only one-fifth the tensile strength (force required to hold a weight against gravity) of, for example, carbon fibers and half the tensile strength of glass fibers, a component using flax fibers would need to weigh four times as much as an otherwise identical component made of carbon fibers in order to be equally effective. Same goes for flax fibers compared to glass fibers. Since fibers and resin are used in fiber composites in a 50/50 ratio, using more fibers also means using more resin. This not only worsens the ecological balance, but may even reverse it.
While the pure natural fiber remains CO2-neutral even when needing disposal, components made of fiber composites must be disposed of as special waste regardless of the fiber used due to their plastic content. This usually happens thermally.
Flax fibers (still) cost more than five times as much as glass fibres. Their properties are, on a basic level, similar to those of glass fibers, but cannot replace them one-to-one. In addition, it is a location-dependent natural product that requires particularly targeted quality management in order to cushion fluctuations caused by the climate.
As with so many things, cost matters. The know-how required for the cultivation of hemp, flax and the like is primarily used in the textile industry. Only a few manufacturers produce natural fibers for use in fiber composites. Their fibers are priced accordingly.
A preliminary conclusion
Applied to our example of the AquaSpeeder, the current prices for carbon, glass and natural fibers mean that an otherwise identical component that is made with flax fibers would cost six times as much as one made with glass fibers and would be 20% more expensive than one made with carbon fibers.
We are all aware that eco-friendly materials cost more. As product developers, however, we are confronted with the question of whether natural fibers are (already) worth it from an ecological and economic point of view.
Weight plays an important role in the construction of watercraft, which is why the use of natural fibers for structurally important components is currently not an option for us. But: more and more resins with biodegradable components are becoming available. It is conceivable to use bioresins in combination with natural fibers for structurally unstressed components such as panelling, upper shell and lid?
We would be happy to discuss this as well as to receive input regarding our thesis that, taking into account mutually influential factors such as density, weight, resin content and tensile strength, the use of natural fiber materials is not ecologically and economically worthwhile at the present time. Can you think of any use cases we missed in our considerations?
NEWS: ZDI-NETWORK ENNEPE-RUHR
The year starts off with great news: the zdi-network Ennepe-Ruhr has moved in with us this month! It stands for #zukunftdurchinnovation (#futurethroughinnovation) and aims to inspire young people to pursue a career in a STEM field and to give them an insight into the professional practice of dual training professions. In addition, it lends, among other things, humanoic robots, 3D printers and experiment kits to school and extracurricular learning locations in order to introduce kids in the region to the STEM subjects in a playful way.
ONE YEAR OF THE INNOVATION WORKSHOP: CHALLENGES AND INSIGHTS
Exactly one year ago, in November 2020, we ventured into the public arena with the Innovation Workshop. The timing seemed like a great challenge, especially because of the ongoing corona crisis. Now it’s time to take stock.
From the beginning, our interest and focus in innovation has been on tangible products and optimizing development and production processes. Thanks to our background in design and product development, it was obvious that we would use this know-how to also support founders and medium-sized companies in particular in getting the best out of their ideas.
On the one hand, this was motivated by the desire to pass on our knowledge to young, motivated people, whom we have had the pleasure of getting to know again and again in the course of semester-long internships over the past few years. On the other hand, we observe the challenge, especially among the medium-sized companies around us, that innovation and innovative products are in demand as they’ve never been before. However, these companies find themselves in the predicament that innovative product development is a cost factor that represents a financial risk with no guarantee of success. Especially in these current difficult times.
Founding is a trend
And that’s a good thing. We need founders with new, fresh ideas. But founders with good ideas also need support in implementing these ideas and making them suitable for series production. Nowadays, there are many aspects, e.g. sustainability and communication, that need to be considered and optimized in product development.
Thanks to our many years of experience in our workshops with a focus on design and development and our collaboration with research institutions, we are able to analyze a product efficiently and start at the right places in terms of optimization. We bring the approach of industry and the flexibility of a small company to the process.
Founders, start-ups and expectations
During 2021, we had the opportunity to test our approach as an Innovation Workshop. The startup scene turned out to be not as we had expected or envisioned. There is a lot of talk about sales and capital and less about what you ultimately want to sell. This is despite the fact that, according to the Deutscher Startup Monitor 2021, product development comes in second among the major challenges listed by startups – after customer acquisition and before raising capital.
A clear identity is important
Our conclusion from these experiences is that we want to focus more on our industry partners in the future. We have had good experiences with investors who approach us with a product idea and thus found spin-offs from existing companies.
In addition, we see a need to differentiate ourselves from the “Maker Spaces” that we have been caught in the wave of. We are not a Maker Space, nor are we coaches for product invention, but a commercial enterprise with day-to-day business that advises and supports existing product ideas in terms of feasibility and manufacturing, as well as building prototypes. We support founders and investors to develop, design and optimize products – provided they approach us with existing ideas and concepts. We are not supported by another institution, but organize ourselves, are responsible for our own projects and are not involved in the struggle for funding that is ubiquitous in the startup scene. For joint projects, we offer the space to work on them locally.
This clear positioning on the market is something we will take with us from the first year of the Innovation Workshop into the next. Finding and verbalizing our mission statement in such clear terms was perhaps the past year’s biggest challenge for us and something we will continue to work on in the future.
We are already looking forward to it.
NEW PROJECT: KB WOODCRAFT SUP BOARDS
In this project we support and advise Heiko and Micha from the startup Kremer & Baez Woodcraft. In Piraeus, Greece, the two guys develop and handcraft balancing boards and stand up paddle boards from natural materials.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign, it is time to prepare the production of their new SUP boards for the upcoming season. The new designs have to be optimized in terms of their construction, weight and a time management to ensure efficient small batch production. This also includes aspects of hydrodynamics and stability to ensure an ideal handling of the boards on water.
PROJECT COMPLETED: AQUASPEEDER
In cooperation with a private investor, we have developed the prototype of a micro watercraft with electric propulsion for water hiking on inland waters, which can also be used without a boating license due to its low power.
On Saturday, October 2, 2021, we officially presented the functional prototype under the brand name AquaSpeeder to an enthusiastic audience and press representatives at the Wolfssee in Duisburg. More than fifty visitors took a test spin on the AquaSpeeder and came back beaming.
This model’s special feature is that it looks like a jet ski and feels like a jet ski, but it has no jet propulsion. The AquaSpeeder runs on a propeller drive, which classifies it as a boat.
We will continue to follow the AquaSpeeder. The next steps are twofold: firstly, we will support the investor in marketing and branding development, and secondly, we will prepare for production. In this phase, the prototype will be further optimized; for example, the use of natural fibers and natural resins will be considered.
PROJECT COMPLETED: TREASURESHIP
On behalf of the DST (Development Center for Ship Technology and Transport Systems e. V.) in Duisburg, we built a model of one of the treasure ships of the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He. According to Chinese sources, the treasure ships were between 120 and 125 meters long and 50 meters wide, which would make them the largest wooden ships ever built. The seaworthiness of such a ship has always been questioned by researchers.
Based on Sarah Ward’s 2006 dissertation titled “Chinese Whispers: Zheng He’s Treasure Ships in the context of Chinese Maritime Policy in the Ming Dynasty (1364-1644)” we built a model to investigate the seaworthiness of the ship.
It was built to a scale of 1:70.
DOG & DRIVE: PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED
On behalf of a private investor, we developed a dog transport and boarding aid. He approached us after observing in his veterinary practice that the conventional loading and unloading of large dogs in particular caused physical strain and stress for both the owner and the animal. The boarding aid we developed is particularly easy to install and remove and can be operated with just one hand movement.
The prototype development phase has now been completed. We will continue to support the production of the first batch of fully operational items, the production of which has been moved to specially equipped premises. In addition, we are further involved in the project in terms of visualization and branding.
The accompanying video was conceived and realized by us during the product development process and in close cooperation between the product design and graphics departments, and the launch is expected any minute.
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