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Designing for lightness in fabric structures

Fabric Structures, Markets | October 1, 2020 | By:

A new book examines sustainability in materials design.

By Marie O’Mahony

Editor’s note: Marie O’Mahony will moderate a panel session led by author Ed van Hinte on Nov. 5 at IFAI Virtual Expo 2020. The session will provide an updated view on lightness in design and how the world might benefit from it.

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to look at our environmental impact, the timely book Designing Lightness: Structures for Saving Energy, co-authored by Ed van Hinte and Adriaan Beukers, considers the issue through the lens of lightness. This is the authors’ third book on the subject. Van Hinte heralds from industrial design while Beukers is a professor emeritus in composite materials and structures at the Technical University (TU) Delft, the Netherlands. During a recent interview with van Hinte, I explored some of the themes introduced in the book to gain some insight into what he hopes to see develop in the near future.

The new composite facade of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has a monolithic appearance and used 8,500 kilometers of carbon and aramid fibers, which created an aesthetic closer to that of a mega yacht than a land-based structure. Photo: flickr/Fred Romero.

Long-term planning

The idea of achieving maximum value while minimizing material use is a familiar concept within the composite materials sector. I asked van Hinte about the book’s idea of bringing together sustainability with the notion of time. “Sustainability by definition is related to time,” he says. “You have to sustain something over time and think about what happens to it. It’s important that you think ahead. You really have to start designing for 50 years hence.”  

Van Hinte sees sustainability as something that must be “cultivated” and is in need of continual reassessment and renewal rather than something “added,” which suggests it is done just once. In particular, he says long-term planning is a necessary component of recycling. “Carbon fiber, glass fiber and thermoset composites are hard to recycle. It is a process that is evolving as thermoset is being replaced by thermoplastic.” 

An example, according to van Hinte, is the company Dutch Thermoplastic Components (DTC), which specializes in the manufacture of structural parts for aerostructures that can be recycled. It recently produced a carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic polymer (CFRTP) 2.4-meter stringer for a fuselage panel as part of the Thermoplastic Affordable Primary Aircraft Structure (TAPAS) consortium, a group of nine Dutch industrial companies and research institutes working together with the aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

Disciplined collaboration

Van Hinte says collaborations among different disciplines are critical to successful sustainability in structure design and materials manufacturing. Citing his own experience of working on a master planning project for cities with 10 collaborators from fields such as architecture and aerospace, he found both positives and negatives. One positive was learning to understand one another’s interpretation of a word such as lightness, because “engineers are into literal thinking, whereas designers think in metaphors.” He acknowledges that it is not always easy to overcome such differences. In this instance, one group in the project failed to understand another group’s perspective and it became impossible to reach a successful conclusion. 

In addition to collaboration among disciplines, van Hinte emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning versus simply designing on a computer. “I think it is extremely important that people learn with their hands and learn by doing. People working in industrial design often have little idea of the refinement that is possible if they have not made anything. My students can make very elaborate designs on the computer. At a certain point they will announce that they have designed it and now they will make it! Without the experience of making, they can have no idea that these need to be interlinked.”

Innovate beyond materials

According to the book, materials alone have been unjustly credited with spearheading innovation over the past 20 years. “It is not just materials,” says van Hinte. “It is also process and context.” He uses composites as an example because they are compositions of materials that are more complicated to design. He is optimistic that progress is being made and points to the fact that in the first Lightness book there were no composite airplanes, while in this latest book there are two. He also points to the fact that more composites are being used in buildings, primarily for cladding, as in the example of the new composite facade of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The project’s Netherlands-based composite manufacturer, Holland Composites, was aiming for a monolithic appearance and used 8,500 kilometers of carbon and aramid fibers, which created an aesthetic closer to that of a mega yacht than a land-based structure. 

The choice of composite material also owes something to the need to guard against the expansion or shifting of the structure caused by temperature fluctuations as a result of climate change; a dramatic contrast to the original red brick building dating back to 1895, when global warming wasn’t a consideration. Processes are now being brought together in increasingly novel ways to deliver a sophisticated range of composites. An example is the process of overprinting, whereby a thermoplastic fiber is applied directly to an existing part using 3D printing. This allows for layers of high strength to be applied where needed and less fiber printed where it is not required—in other words, achieving “maximum value for minimum amount of mass.” 

Although biomimicry is mentioned several times in the book, van Hinte says that while the idea of extracting good design from nature is growing in popularity as a concept, the commercialized outputs fall short of expectations. He says the notion is often a distraction, and he uses the example of the Rotterdam-based bridge-building company FiberCore® Europe (FCE), which uses an oblique layering technology that significantly reduces the risk of delamination. After the company designed and patented the technology, it discovered that the layering is widely used in nature in plants, vegetables and animal life. “Often,” says van Hinte, “this is how biomimetics works. First the copy is designed and then the original is discovered.”

Steep environmental costs

As for what will develop in the future, van Hinte says the introduction of thermoplastics in composites will be important. However, he is quite concerned about the impacts of artificial intelligence (AI). “In Ireland, about 40 percent of the energy used is for data processing, and it is going the same direction in the Netherlands.” Laptops are smaller than a decade ago, but their processing power is many times greater. Van Hinte sees AI costing an enormous amount of energy that comes at a great environmental price. He says he does not believe that renewable energy is an automatic solution. “Solar energy needs equipment and it needs a mine,” he says. “It also needs to be repaired and replaced because it will not last more than 25 years. The neodymium used in magnets in wind turbines has to be mined in China in a very dirty process; plus mining uses fossil fuels.” In the future, says van Hinte, companies may very well be expected to show their energy use.  

Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She is the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and is a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.

SIDEBAR: Buy the book

The book Designing Lightness: Structures for Saving Energy (2020)
by Adriaan Beukers and Ed van Hinte offers an accessible introduction to lightness in design, with case studies and illustrations providing examples of how it can bring environmental benefit to transport, architecture and other design areas. For purchase information, visit Book design and photo: Studio Renate Boere.

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