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History of composites

Updated: Nov 16, 2021


Ancient Times

One of the earliest uses of composite material was by the ancient Mesopotamians around 3400 B.C. when they glued wood strips at different angles to create plywood. The concept of “composite” building construction has existed since ancient times.

The first known use of composites is credited to the Mesopotamians. These ancient people glued wood strips at different angles to create plywood in 3400 B.C.

Civilizations throughout the world have used basic elements of their surrounding environment to fabricate dwellings, including mud/straw and wood/clay. “Bricks” were and still are made from mud and straw.

The plywood principle

The story of industrial composites is, in part, the story of the industrial revolution. British engineer Samuel Bentham’s 1797 patent for wood laminate – laminating layers of veneer with glue to form a thicker piece – produced an early version of industrial plywood, in a process developed further still by Immanuel Nobel, father of Alfred Nobel. By 1928, standardized plywood sheeting was in use as a general building material. Composites had become a commodity item.

Polymer Resins

In the late 1800s, canoe builders began experimenting with different materials to make paper laminates. They tried gluing layers of kraft paper (sturdy, machine-made paper created from wood pulp) together with shellac. It was a good idea but ultimately flopped because the available materials were not up to the task. The first synthetic (man-made) resins that could be converted from liquid to solid (using a chemical process called polymerization) were developed between 1870 and 1890. These polymer resins are transformed from the liquid state to the solid state by crosslinking the molecules.

Following the industrial revolution, synthetic resins started to take a solid form by using polymerization. In the 1900s this newfound knowledge about chemicals led to the creation of various plastics such as polyester, phenolic, and vinyl. Synthetics then started to be developed, Bakelite was created by the chemist Leo Baekeland. The fact that it did not conduct electricity and was heat resistant meant it could be widely used across many industries.

Enter bakelite

Belgian-born U.S. chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland ushered in the modern era of composites in 1907, creating Bakelite, one of the first synthetic resins. The resin was extremely brittle, but Baekeland found he could soften and strengthen it by combining it with cellulose. The first commercial use of Bakelite was to make gearshift knobs in 1917 for Rolls Royce automobiles. New and better resins were produced during the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 1930s, two U.S. chemical companies, American Cyanamid and DuPont, further developed polymer resins. In the course of their experimentation, both companies independently formulated polyester resin for the first time.

The 1930s was an incredibly important time for the advancement of composites. Glass fiber was introduced by Owens Corning who also started the first fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) industry. The resins engineered during this era are still used to this day and, in 1936, unsaturated polyester resins were patented. Two years later, higher-performance resin systems became accessible.

Fibers made from glass

Composites continued to take off after the war and grew rapidly through the 1950s: Boats, trucks, sports cars, storage tanks, pipes, ducts, and many other products were built using composites. In 1953, the 1st production Chevrolet Corvette with fiberglass body panels rolled off the assembly line. Also in the early 1950s, manufacturing methods such as pultrusion, vacuum bag molding, and large-scale filament winding were developed. Filament winding became the basis for the large-scale rocket motors that propelled the exploration of space in the 1960s and beyond.

The first carbon fiber was patented in 1961 and then became commercially available. Then, in the mid-1990s, composites were starting to become increasingly common for manufacturing processes and construction due to their relatively cheap cost compared to materials that had been used previously. The composites on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the mid-2000s substantiated their use for high-strength applications.

Modern Day

Many industrial designers and engineers now specify composites for various components within industries such as manufacturing, construction, and transportation. FRP composites systems are used in thousands of installations around the world to strengthen or seismically upgrade reinforced concrete or masonry structures ranging from buildings and parking garages to transportation structures such as bridge columns and decks.

In the early 2000s, nanotechnology began to be used in commercial products. Composites play an important role in carbon nanotubes; bulk carbon nanotubes can be used as composite fibers in polymers to improve the mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties of the bulk product. Nano-materials are incorporated into improved fibers and resins used in new composites.

The rise of 3-D printing in the 2010s brought manufacturing into homes and small businesses, allowing users to bring to life on a desktop any item they can dream up with a CAD program. In recent years the rise of accessible AFP machines is growing the industrialization of composites materials at an industrial scale.

About Addcomposites

Addcomposites is the provider of the Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) system. The AFP system provided by Addcomposites can be rented on a monthly basis to work with thermosets, thermoplastic, dry fiber placement, or in combination with 3d printers.



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