Cygnet Texkimp has just sold two of its fibre converting machines to two of the largest producers of carbon fibre composites in the world. The deal, to supply two wide-web, ultra-low coat-weight/high tolerance coating machines, marks the beginning of another busy year for the Cheshire-based fibre handling expert and custom machinery builder.

Composites in Manufacturing Editor Mike Richardson caught up with Cygnet Texkimp Managing Director, Luke Vardy, to find out more about the company’s technologies and his views on the market.

“Our fibre handling know-how goes back over 40 years to the early 1970s when our company founder and British textile engineer Colin Smith began manufacturing and selling fibre unwinding creels, first to the traditional textile market here in the UK and then to the emerging technical textiles market around the world.

“The way our machines handle the fibres they process is still our number one priority – perhaps even more so now because of the value of the technical fibres we’re handling today and the importance of precision and accuracy. We know how to handle fibre to ensure it isn’t damaged during processing and to deliver the highest quality materials and end products. That’s essential in the composites market; it’s one of the main reasons our customers come to us.

“In the last 10 years our business has developed to reflect the needs of the composites market and its end users in industries such as automotive, aerospace, wind energy and sporting goods.

“These markets are looking for ways to manufacture lighter, stronger composites more efficiently, in higher volumes and speeds but with lower costs, more accurately and consistently. We’ve responded by developing a range of machinery that works alongside our creels, to convert fibres into useful, high-performing materials.

“Sales of our fibre converting technologies, including prepreg, coating, laminating, embossing, slitting and winding machines, now make up more than half of our annual revenue. After 40 years of being a world leader in creels, we’re now equally known in downstream converting and automation. That’s an immense technical achievement.”

Vardy believes the company’s ability to innovate is key to its success in the composites market. In 2015 it opened a secure R&D centre at its Northwich headquarters as a dedicated space to develop new concepts, test prototypes, and build and trial full-size machinery.

“Opening the R&D centre was a watershed moment for us. We’ve created a world-class environment that celebrates innovation and attracts the right people into our business to work on really interesting, challenging and novel tech. And of course it gives us a place where customers and partners can come to trial our machines and develop their processes before they invest.

“Composites is a very fast-moving technical space and we’ve always worked hard to stay ahead of our competition by constantly pushing the boundaries of what machinery can achieve for our customers. We’re proud to be one of the industry’s trusted technology partners and a go-to authority in fibre handling, but we never take it for granted. We’re continually investing in our facilities, projects and people.”

Examples of the company’s innovative technologies include its portfolio of filament winding machines. These range from the high-speed, robotic 3D Winder which was developed to wind carbon fibre into strong and lightweight composite parts such as crash beams for automotive and wing spars for aerospace, to the standard 4-axis winder that was launched at last year’s JEC.

“Filament winding is a major part of our plans for the next decade. These technologies allow us to take our fibre knowledge further downstream into part manufacture while at the same time bringing together our other three product streams – creels, wide web converting, and handling and automation.”

Other great examples of innovation are the company’s thermoplastic and thermoset lines. They enable manufacturers to produce extremely stable and durable high tech composite components from thermoplastics, which can be reheated and remoulded, and thermosets, which maintain their shape and properties even under intense heat or pressure. Both technologies are being used in the aerospace and automotive markets, typically for the manufacture of engine parts.

Cygnet Texkimp is also working hard to inspire new generations of engineers and support workers into the industry through its apprenticeship and graduate programmes.

“We have an enormous amount to offer young engineers. Operating in niche sectors with a varied product portfolio means we can tailor our development programmes for each individual, giving them the opportunity to learn a variety of disciplines and the possibility of a rewarding career with great prospects,” explains Vardy.

But he believes more can be done to provide targeted financial support for companies involved in bringing people back into the STEM industries.

“The apprenticeship initiative has been successful for us. We’ve hired and trained several excellent young engineers who are making a real difference in our business. But it’s important to recognise that their training needs don’t stop at the end of their three-year apprenticeship.

“We would welcome more national funding to help firms like ours support our young engineers post-apprenticeship and in the early years of their careers, when their professional training needs are still high.

“Not only would this be in the interests of the SME market by helping us to compete for talent with the big chemical and manufacturing companies; it would also benefit the UK manufacturing sector as a major employer.”