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Design, Fabrication, and Testing of a Composite Side Door for a

Mid-Size SUV
John N. Owens
GM Research and Development
Materials and Processes Lab

Abstract

As part of a mass-savings initiative, a composite intensive side door project was started
at GM R&D. In order to allow more innovation in the design, two normally limiting
constraints were eliminated. Firstly, the Class A requirement for the outer surface was
relaxed and secondly, labor intensive handcrafting was allowed for the purpose of
prototyping. The composite door was constrained to fit the existing door opening and to
use carry-over internal hardware.
Using stiffness criteria, finite element analysis was used to develop a minimum mass
design using composite sandwich structures. Preforms were handcrafted from molded
foam cores wrapped with a combination of woven and stitch-bonded unidirectional glass
fibers. Prototype doors were molded using vacuum assisted resin transfer molding. The
resulting composite door met the stiffness targets and yielded a 35% mass reduction
compared to its steel counterpart.

For presentation to Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Composites Conference in Troy, MI


.

Background
Structural applications of polymer composite materials are expected to provide significant mass
reductions over the steel components that they replace. With an aim towards more fuel-efficient
vehicles, mass reduction has become an increasingly important strategy. While wholesale
substitution of polymer composite materials for steel could reduce mass dramatically, a less
aggressive approach of targeting specific parts is more likely to succeed.
Closures are often targeted for mass reduction because they have minimal influence on the
structural integrity of the vehicle as a whole. Prototype closures can often be substituted onto existing
vehicles with little or no changes to the rest of the vehicle. This facilitates testing and reduces the
development costs significantly. In this work, attention is focused strictly on the front side door. Due
to vehicle symmetry, any mass reduction achieved in a side door is doubled on the vehicle (for two
door models). An additional advantage of developing a low mass side door is that it can be easily
commonized for high volume. Thus, a successful development of a low mass side door could have
wide applicability.
F o r th is p a rticu la r sid e d o o r p ro je ct, G M s m id -sized SUV (Envoy, Trailblazer) was chosen as a
target vehicle for mass reduction. The project objectives were to replace the production steel door
with a polymer composite door that was a minimum of 30% lower mass while keeping projected cost
increases to a minimum. The composite door had to meet or exceed all of the stiffness requirements
of the steel door and would be expected to meet the federally mandated side impact requirements
(FMVSS-214) as well. In this investigation, all internal hardware was required to be carry-over from
the steel design.
A key element in achieving the mass reduction was to design intrusion protection into the
composite structure rather than including a separate beam. While composites have been shown to
absorb energy well in crush[1-2], side impact requires energy absorbtion in a bending mode. With the
right architecture, composites can be successfully designed for this application [3-6]. Previous inhouse development on various composite door materials had shown that a glass fiber fabric oriented
at 45 provided a progressive failure mechanism that absorbed a large amount of energy. With the
side impact requirements in mind, it was decided to take advantage of this particular glass fiber
orientation in the composite door concept. After looking at several possible constructions, initial
estimates suggested that the 30% mass savings target would require use of a sandwich construction.
Without the mass efficiency of a sandwich structure, a 30% mass savings was not thought to be
possible using glass fibers. Once the decisions were made to use a glass fiber fabric reinforcement
around a core material, design optimization procedures could begin.

Development of an optimized design


With the requirement of fitting the door into the existing opening, a natural starting point was the
original steel design. An existing FEA model of the steel door was subdivided into several zones,
within which material properties were constant. The different zones are represented by different
colors in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Zones defined for FEA


The model was built using Altair's Hypermesh through a combination of one-dimensional and
two-dimensional elements. Within each zone, a general laminate structure was defined with layers
corresponding to the various reinforcements from a pre-selected short list of materials. With the
objective of keeping reinforcement costs low, only glass fiber broad goods were considered. Choices
were confined to plain weave fabrics and unidirectional stitch bonded reinforcements. A fiberglass
veil was used on the outer surface to improve the surface quality (although not to automotive Class A
standards).
Plain weave fabrics were modeled by using three adjacent unidirectional plies with alternating +45
and -45 degree orientation. The thicknesses of the unidirectional plies were t/4, t/2, and t/4 where t is
the thickness of the actual plain weave fabric. Each sandwich-structure component consisted of
several layers of unidirectional and balanced +/-45 laminae of varying thicknesses. Additionally,
components on the outer door surface included a 0.5 mm resin-rich layer to represent the Class-A
finish material. The sandwich construction was assumed to contain a 10 lb/ft3 foam core fully
sandwiched in the fiberglass and resin laminate. The foam was represented as a constituent ply of
the laminate for the section of door below the belt beam. Thus, a typical ply definition for the outer
panel of the composite door would contain the layers illustrated in Figure 2.

+45 Layer
-45 Layer
+45 Layer
0 Layer
Core
+45 Layer
-45 Layer
+45 Layer
Class A

Figure 2. General2 Ply Structure

The thickness of each ply within the general structure was left as a variable for the structural
optimization. The optimization goal was to determine the combination of ply thicknesses that would
yield a minimum mass structure that still met or exceeded the structural stiffness criteria.
Structural stiffness criteria were established based on standard door design guidelines. These
guidelines established the maximum allowable deflection for application of a fixed load at a specific
location on the door. Seven stiffness criteria were used: fore window header inboard, fore window
header outboard, aft window header inboard, aft window header outboard, inner beltline outboard,
outer beltline inboard, lower torsional, upper torsional, and vertical rigidity. These tests will be
discussed later in the structural validation section.
Initial optimization analyses were conducted without constraints on the ply thicknesses within each
region. This resulted in mass of approximately 11 kg or a 42% mass reduction from the 18.90 kg
steel door. Manufacturing constraints were progressively imposed on the model through several
optimization iterations. The first manufacturing constraint imposed was to link layers from several
adjacent regions to form mats of constant thickness (to reduce the number of fabric pieces). Fabric
thicknesses were then constrained to be an integral multiple of 0.65 mm (single ply thickness). A 0.30
mm minimum thickness was then imposed on all unidirectional layers. Minimum core thickness for
specific areas was also imposed for fabrication and handling considerations. As constraints were
added, the resultant mass of the door also increased. After many iterations, a balance between
manufacturability and mass savings was achieved that resulted in a design mass of 13 kg ( a 30%
mass reduction).
In the final optimized design, unidirectional carbon fiber was used to reinforce the inner belt beam
instead of unidirectional glass fiber. This change was made because with glass fiber, the model
called for a 8 mm thick wall which was deemed excessive.

Fabrication of the prototype composite doors


Process selection
The fabrication approach was guided by a preference to prepare preforms and mold parts inhouse rather than at an outside molding shop. With the objectives of making only three to five
composite doors, it was desirable to carefully prepare preforms for each molding to insure that each
structural region of the door had the proper layers of reinforcement. Several trial and error moldings
were expected to apply learnings from the previous run and modify the molding parameters. This trial
and error approach precluded preparing several preforms ahead of time and molding them all during
a single molding trial at an outside mold shop. Molding in-house presented both process and tooling
challenges as discussed below.
A molding approach that would work without a large press was needed. Vacuum infusion molding
was selected so that large parts could be molded with little or no pressure. With a large part such as
a door, complete mold fill with vacuum infusion is dependent on using a low viscosity resin because
the driving force is limited to atmospheric pressure. The required low viscosity is best achieved by
performing the vacuum infusion at a slightly elevated temperature. Previous experience with vacuum
infusion molding also indicated that the quality of the molded part (elimination of dry spots, surface
quality, etc.) was always improved with application of molding pressure during cure. With the need to
preheat a door-sized tool and maintain pressure during cure, it was decided to develop a process that
would use the GM R&D autoclave.
In order to maintain pressure during cure, the door tool was designed without rigid stops between

tool halves. With the top and bottom mold halves floating; any pressure applied to the tool is
transferred to the resin and preform within the tool cavity. The concept was to infuse resin into the tool
with the tool halves slightly separated (approximately .125 to .250 mm) and then rely on air pressure
in the autoclave to compress the tool halves together while the resin cures. If the mold contained
insufficient resin, the tool halves would over-close, yielding a composite door that was thinner than
designed and if the mold contained an excess of resin, the composite door would be too thick. With a
repeatable preform, determination of the desired quantity of resin was expected to take only a few
trials. With this approach, sealing of the tool was of critical importance. Pressure on the resin in the
mold could only be maintained if no resin was allowed to leak out of the mold and if no air from the
autoclave was allowed to leak into the mold.
Complete filling of the mold was also considered a technical challenge due to the complexity of the
composite door geometry and the variation of fiber orientation and skin thickness throughout the part.
Although computer simulations of resin infusion processes have improved dramatically, it was
concluded that the composite door was too complex to obtain reliable flow predictions. Instead, it was
decided to specify a tool with many vacuum ports (vents) to reduce the chances of entrapped air
causing dry spots.
With resin infusion processes, flow along the edges of a tool (race-tracking) is usually the biggest
problem in obtaining repeatable flow patterns. In order to avoid this unpredictable flow phenomena, a
perimeter runner feed system was implemented by extending the flange region of the door tool by
approximately 20 mm. This excess flange area would be trimmed from the door in a post mold
operation. Preforms were designed to fill only 12.5 mm of the excess flange and the remainder was
designed to serve as a resin runner. With this approach, the resin inlets would feed the perimeter
runner and the mold would fill from the outside edges towards the middle versus the more
conventional system of filling from an interior point toward the outer edges. This long flow front should
result in a faster fill time and a more repeatable filling pattern. The disadvantage of this approach is
that the vacuum ports (vents) must be on the part surface.
A vacuum vent on the appearance surface (Class A side) of a door is undesirable. In order to
avoid venting the appearance side, the concept of using vents through the foam core of the sandwich
structure was developed. Instead of venting trapped air out through the mold wall, a hole was drilled
in the foam core allowing air to escape through the core to the non-appearance side of the composite
door. In order for this concept to work, the resin flow front on the appearance side of the foam core
must reach the hole in the foam core ahead of the resin flow front on the non-appearance side.
Fortunately, the surface veil used on the appearance side of the door dramatically increased the
permeability of the outer preform layers virtually insuring that the flow front on the appearance side
would reach the vent location first.

Tooling Design
Once the tooling concept was decided, attention was focused on seal design required to make the
molding process work. A two seal system was chosen; a primary resin seal, and a secondary
vacuum seal. The role of the primary seal was to prevent any resin from leaking out from between
the two mold halves. Because the two mold halves were designed to be floating (no hard mold to
mold contact points), the primary seal needed to fully seal at mold gaps ranging from 0.50 mm above
to 0.50 mm below the designed mold gap. In addition to holding resin pressure of up to 0.27 MPa,
the primary seal also had to be vacuum tight. With these requirements, a silicone rubber extrusion
with a hollow bulb was chosen.
The purpose of the secondary seal was to facilitate closing the two mold halves and keeping them

together. With the preform in the tool, it was expected that some initial compression force would be
required to close the two mold halves to the desired mold gap. Capability to use vacuum to pull the
mold halves together when they were 6 mm apart was needed. Thus the secondary seal needed to
engage long before the primary seal in order to pull the mold halves closer together at least to the
point that the primary seal would engage. For this purpose, a silicone rubber V-seal was chosen.
Figure 3 shows a cross sectional view of the final sealing system. The primary seal was located in the
lower tool half where it served as a visual guide in locating the preform. The gap between the primary
seal and the preform was designed to serve as a resin channel or runner to distribute the resin quickly
around the perimeter of the part.

Upper Mold Half


Secondary V-seal
Primary Resin Seal
Perimeter Resin Runner

Target Mold Gap

Fiberglass Preform
Lower Mold Half

Figure 3. Sketch of tool seal design


Although the mold halves were intended to be floating (no rigid contact) during molding,
alignment pads on the mold corners were still required. These were designed to allow the mold
halves to overclose the target mold gap by 0.50 mm before tool-to-tool contact would occur on the
pad faces. These alig n m e n t p a d s a lso p ro vid e d id e a l lo ca tio n s fo r p o sitio n in g L V D T s fo r m e a su rin g
the mold gap during processing. By shimming the tops of the pads with 0.50 mm spacers, the
L V D T s co u ld b e ze ro e d to th e d e sire d m o ld o p e n in g . T h e lo w e r to o l h a lf is d e p icte d in Figure 4 with
the alignment pads drawn in yellow.
Figure 4 also gives a visual representation of the underlying grid structure of reinforcing ribs. The
red lines drawn on the tool surface represent the approximate locations of the ribs. After locating the
ribs, optimum locations for the vacuum vents were chosen based on expectations of the last regions
to fill with resin. Initially, nine locations were chosen and their locations are marked with small purple
circles in Figure 4. Five vents were placed below the beltline in the main body of the door while the
four remaining vents were located around the window header.

Alignment
Pads

Vacuum
Vents

Underlying
Ribs

Figure 4. Illustration of lower composite door tool w/ alignment blocks and vents
In the above figure, the green tool surface is part of the door while the cyan tool surface is off the part.
In order to facilitate preform placement and final trimming of the composite door, the trim lines were
scribed into tool during the CAD-CAM machining operation. The scribed trim line in combination with
the primary seal (not pictured) provided good visual aides when laying in the preforms.
The top half of the tool also used the same construction as the lower half, but was of a much simpler
shape. The shape of the top tool half was basically the class A outer surface of the production door
outer with the flange areas extended. In the corners, square receptacles were added to mate to the
alignment blocks of the lower half.
The laminated tool was instrumented with eight dielectric flow sensors (locations shown above).
These custom built sensors were composed of a copper wire (12AWG) running along the central axis
of a inch OD copper tube. Epoxy potting compound was cast into the tube to electrically insulate
the wire from the copper tube. The sensors were embedded in the tool with the end flush to the mold
surface. By placing a sinusoidal voltage on the central wire and using the copper tube as an antenna,
flow arrival could be detected by a sudden increase in signal when the liquid resin provides a
conductive path from wire to tube. Resin cure could also be detected with these sensors because the
resin conductivity decreases dramatically during cure. A calibration test was performed in which resin
was introduced into a glass fiber fabric in contact with a sensor placed in a constant temperature
oven. Frequency of the sinusoidal input voltage was a used as a parameter and the antenna signal
was measured as a function of time. The results of the calibration test are plotted in Figure 5.

100

0.1 kHz
0.2 kHz

1.8

0.5 kHz

90

1.0 kHz

1.6

5.0 kHz

80

10.0 kHz

1.4

50.0 kHz

Signal

70

Gel point
T (C)

60

0.8

Temperature (C)

100. kHz
1.2

50
0.6
40
0.4
30
0.2

0
0

20

40

60

80

100

120

140

160

180

20
200

Time (min)

Figure 5: Signal From of Dielectric Cure Sensors vs. Test Frequency


The 100 Hz signal showed the strongest drop in magnitude immediately preceding resin gelation and
was chosen for cure monitoring during part molding.
M o ld in stru m e n ta tio n a lso in clu d e d L V D T s, th e rm o co u p le s, a n d p re ssu re se n so rs. T h e L V D T s
were positioned in the four corners of the tool outboard of the seals. Two thermocouples were
embedded in the tool. The first was in the header region near the edge of the tool and the second
was in the main body of the door closer to the center of the part. A single pressure transducer was
positioned along the outer beltline just off of the part in the portion of the window flange that was to be
trimmed.

Preform Development
The first step in generating the fiber preform patterns was to sub-divide the inner and outer surfaces
of the composite door into regions corresponding to the contiguous fiber pieces. Using the CAD file
from the designer, the task of cutting and sewing the existing surfaces was performed. Initially, the
surfaces were sub-divided into seven main sections based on knowledge of the composite skin
thickness transitions. These main sections were:
1. Main inner
2. Main outer
3. A-pillar inner
4. A-pillar outer
5. B-pillar inner
5. B-pillar outer
7. belt beam
These seven surfaces form all of the inner and outer surfaces of the composite door. The break lines
were chosen with an eye towards creating surfaces that could be draped with a single piece of fabric

using minimum slitting and darting.


illustrated in Figure 6.

The shapes of the inner surfaces and outer surfaces are

A-pillar
inner

A-pillar
outer

B-pillar
inner

Belt
Beam

B-pillar
outer

Main
inner

View from
Outside vehicle

Main
outer

View from
Outside vehicle

View from
Inside vehicle

View from
Inside vehicle

Figure 6: Regions of door skin defined for draping analysis


In addition to the seven main sections described above, localized reinforcement zones were needed
in specific areas of the door to achieve the desired stiffness and strength. These regions were
chosen to correspond to the FEA regions that require extra plies of unidirectional fibers.

Figure 7: Regions of door designed for localized reinforcements


After defining the contoured surfaces in Unigraphics, the surfaces were exported to PATRAN for
analysis. The first step in PATRAN was to unite the patchwork of surfaces that resulted from the
cutting process in Unigraphics. Once united, the surfaces were meshed for the draping analysis. The
Laminate Modeller package within PATRAN was used for draping. With the exception of the main
inner surface, all of the other surfaces draped easily requiring only a few iterations to minimize the
fabric shearing angles.

Once the 3-D surfaces were draped with fabric, a flat cutting pattern was produced corresponding to
the exact dimensions of fabric necessary to form the surface. These flat patterns were exported from
PATRAN back into Unigraphics via the DXF format. Any outside edges of the patterns were then
identified and extended outwards to create the extra 12mm run-off that was designed into the tooling.
This extra 12mm of material was to be molded into the part and then trimmed off in a post-mold
machining operation. Figure 8 presents the 3-D surface of the A-pillar inner and the corresponding
flat cutting pattern.

3-D surface
For draping

True end
Of Part

Extended pattern
For run off

Flat pattern
For cutting

Figure 8: Example of 3-d surface to 2-D flat pattern


This process was repeated for all of the various 3-D surfaces of the composite door design with the
exception of the main inner, the B-pillar, and the inner belt beam.
The main inner was a challenge to drape because of the side walls that form a U shape. Several
guesses for dart locations in the corners failed to yield a numerical solution. Eventually, the decision
was made to simplify the part geometry by cutting out the troublesome corners and dividing the part
into three pieces (hinge wall, door sill and latch wall). Finally, a flat pattern was generated by piecing
together the individually draped sections. Patches for completing the corners were added manually
after several test fits to a forming fixture.
The B-pillar uni-directional fiber reinforcement posed challengs due to its thickness and the need to
extend the reinforcement below the beltline into the main body of the door.

Flange
3.0 mm

Uni-directional
Fiberglass Layer
Window
Seal Flange
Braid +
Fabric Ply

Foam Core

Figure 9: Cross-section of B-pillar showing foam core wrapped with unidirectional glass
fiber

Although the FEA analysis applied the 3.0 mm uni-directional reinforcement over the entire length of
the B-pillar, engineering intuition suggested that the 3.0 mm thickness should be tapered with a series
of ply drops moving up towards the top of the header. A cross-section of the B-pillar is shown in
Figure 9.
The plan for performing the B-pillar was to build the targeted 3.0 mm thickness of unidirectional fibers
by wrapping 10 individual plies of 0.3 mm around the foam core. Unigraphics was used to measure
the perimeter of the foam core (the blue lines) and the perimeter of the braided layer (yellow lines) at a
series of points between the belt line and the upper corner. The perimeter measurements were used
to determine the width of the unidirectional patterns. Because of the desire to taper the unidirectional
fiber thickness, a set of five heights were chosen to create a succession of ply drops that take place
as the section rises toward the top corner of the window header.
The inner belt beam also proved to be a design challenge. Although initially targeted to be reinforced
with uni-directional glass fiber, the belt beam reinforcement had to be upgraded to carbon fiber. With
glass fiber reinforcement, FEA analysis was driving the skin thickness of the belt beam beyond 7 mm.
The original intent of the belt beam design was to use a constant section beam thus enabling the
application of a balsa wood core with uniform thickness. Unfortunately, a tapered design evolved that
necessitated a needlessly complicated ply lay-up and a machined balsa core. The final construction
of the inner belt beam is depicted in Figure 10. It consists of a machined balsa wood core with an
angle cut top and rounded bottom. Four plies of uni-directional carbon fiber were applied to either
side of the balsa core and the entire beam was wrapped with a fabric layer on the outside. One of the
carbon fiber plies was cut extra tall to extend up into the window flange region for stiffening of the
flange.
Belt Beam
Sections

Fiberglass
Fabric

Uni-carbon fiber
Plies (0.8mm)

Balsa
Core

Typical
Section

Figure 10: Ply construction of the inner belt beam


After completing the draping analysis and designing the ply-by-ply lay-up patterns, the various
patterns were grouped for development of the cutting table patterns. For example, all of the
unidirectional glass fiber patterns were grouped together to create a single job for the automatic
cutting table. Although sophisticated nesting algorithms are available to minimize engineered scrap,

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the patterns for this project were hand positioned to facilitate the ease of operation instead. Figure 11
illustrates the cutting table jobs that were developed for this project.

Veil

Inner
Outer

Figure 11: A. Unidirectional glass fiber patterns developed cutting table


B. Glass fiber fabric (FGI-2454) patterns developed for cutting table
C. Unidirectional carbon fiber for belt beam
D. Veil and fabric for main inner and outer

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Foam Core Molding


The foam resin used for this program was Stepanfoam BX-450 (a rigid, water-blown polyurethane
foam mixed at a 2:1 ratio of isocyanate to polyol). This resin was selected for its high temperature
properties, which the supplier reported as withstanding 700 kPa at 175C (100 psi at 350F). This
was required for the foam core to support the composite skins during the autoclave curing process.
The foam material was mixed and dispensed with an Admiral RIM machine through an impingement
mix head at an injection rate of 250 g/s. The resin was injected at room temperature, while the tools
were heated to 60C.
The foam began to rise about 10 seconds after mixing with a rapid
temperature increase. The peak exotherm occurred about 100 seconds after mixing. The mold heat
was turned off 10 minutes after the resin pour and the mold opened after about 1 hour so that the
foam core could be demolded cool. Although a dramatically shorter cycle time could be developed for
production quantities by using a cooling fixture, the long cycle time was not a problem for molding
three or four prototype parts.
For moldabiliity, the foam core was divided into three pieces that were molded individually. The
foam core below the door beltline was molded in a single piece including the hinge wall, latch wall and
door sill. The foam core in the window header was also molded in a single piece. These two major
foam core moldings are pictured in Figure 12. A smaller foam core piece was molded to fill in the
triangular mirror attachment area but is not depicted.

Figure 12. Photograph of foam core moldings for the composite door.

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PREFORM ASSEMBLY
After complete sets of fiber reinforcement patterns and foam cores were fabricated, the task of
preform assembly was begun. The basic strategy was to start assembling the headers and work
down to the belt beam and finally to the main body of the door. The innermost layers were laid directly
into the tool using the end-of-part scribe lines and the resin seal as visual guides. The glass fiber
braids were pulled over the header foam cores. The braided tubes were then pulled taut and stapled
directly to the core.
The figure below shows the lay-up of the fabric into the door header. The cast epoxy tooling
compound models of the foam core were used to help shape the fabric into the header of the tool.
After the initial shaping, the cast models were replaced with the actual foam core headers with their
braided overwrapping.

Resin Seal

B-pillar
inner

1.

2.

A-pillar inner

Uni-carbon on
Balsa beam

Belt beam wrap

Foam core
Tooling model

3.

4.
Figure 13: Preform assembly of the door header.

The inner belt beam was laid into the tool next. An outer layer of glass fiber fabric was placed in the
tool first followed by the four layers of uni-directional carbon fiber. The balsa core was then added
and the final four plies of uni-directional carbon fiber were laid on top. After completing the inner belt
beam, the aluminum tooling insert was positioned into the tool and tightened into position with three
bolts coming from the bottom side of the tool.

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Although most of the fabric patterns could be formed directly in the molding tool, the main door inner
with its high, U-shaped wall needed a special performing tool. A single-sided tool with hand clamps
along the edges was used (see Figure 14). The fabric pattern was positioned on the forming tool and
a thermosetting binder (with blue dye for visibility) was sprayed into regions of sharp bends. A sheet
of nylon vacuum bag film was then draped over the forming tool and sealed to the edges with yellow
rubber sealing tape. The hand clamps were used to hold the fabric down at several strategic points
along the edges. A vacuum was then drawn to pull the film down tightly over the fabric and press it
against the form. With the vaccum holding the fabric to the form, an infra-red lamp was lowered over
the performing tool to cure the thermoset binder and lock the fabric into shape.

Figure 14: Preforming tool for main door inner fabric


The main inner fabric preform was then placed over the foam core and stapled into place. The foam
core with its glass fiber skin was then pushed down into the mold cavity until the top of the foam core
was approximately flush with the flange surface of the cavity. With the inner reinforcements all loaded
into the tool, all that remained was the placement of the outer fabric skin and the surfacing veil. The
outer skin is relatively flat as compared to the inner skin and was easily positioned using the scribe
lines and resin seals as guidelines. Finally, the top surfacing veil was placed over the outer skin
completing the preform assembly.

RESIN INFUSION MOLDING


Three composite doors were molded using the same basic procedure. The tool containing the
preform was preheated overnight at a temperature of 65C. The first step on the following morning
was to prepare the epoxy resin. The epoxy, anhydride, and catalyst (and dye in some cases) were
mixed mechanically with an electric motor driven mixing blade. The mixed resin was then vacuum
degassed in batches to eliminate as much dissolved air as possible.
After preparing the resin, the preheated tool was pulled out of the autoclave and a vacuum was
applied to close the tool halves far enough to engage the resin seal. With the resin seal engaged, a
second vacuum pump was turned on to evacuate the interior of the tool through the 15 vacuum vents

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distributed around the bottom of the tool. The degassed resin was then poured into plastic separatory
funnels (with stopcock on the bottom) and connected to the three resin inlet positions via a short
length of flexible tubing. Finally, the resin inlet valves were opened to evacuate the flexible tubing
leading to the funnel stopcocks.
At this point, the data acquisition program was started thereby defining zero time. A few seconds
later, the funnel stopcocks were opened and the resin drawn into the tool by the vacuum. After the
resin flow was started, the vacuum vents on the underside of the tool were constantly monitored for
resin. A 30 cm length of transparent flexible tubing was attached to the vent ports to facilitate
observation. After resin was observed in a vent line, the vent line was sealed off with a pinch clamp
to prevent more than approximately 10 ml of resin from exiting the tool. The vents in the header
region of the door were sealed off in rapid succession between 3 and 5 minutes after the start of fill.
The remainder of the vents were sealed off later at times ranging up to 15 minutes.
The progress of the resin infusion could be partly assessed by observing the signals from the in-mold
dielectric sensors as well as direct observation of resin in the vent lines. Upon the resin arrival, the
apparent dielectric loss signal from the sensor would jump from around 0.5 up to a value greater than
0.9 . The dielectric loss signals from the 8 in-mold sensors are plotted in Figure 15. As expected, the
sensor in the door header detected resin arrival first, approximately 2 minutes after the start of fill.
Resin arrival at the remaining locations was detected later depending on location but usually within 5
to 10 minutes of the starting time.
Sensor #
1.7

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

1.5

Loss Factor

1.3

Transition Line
from dry to wet sensor

1.1

0.9

0.7

0.5

0.3
0

10

Time (minutes)

Figure 15: Plot of loss factor vs. time for in-mold sensors showing resin arrival
After all of the vacuum vent lines were sealed with the pinch clamps, the resin filled tool was rolled
back into the autoclave for cure. Vacuum was maintained on the trapped volume between the
primary seal and the resin seal in order to keep the tool closed. After sealing the autoclave door, air
pressure was allowed to build in the chamber effectively squeezing the two mold halves together
while heating the tool up to the desired cure temperature.
T h e m o ld g a p s a t th e fo u r co rn e rs w e re m e a su re d b y th e L V D T s. F ig u re 1 6 p re se n ts a p lo t o f th e
mold gaps versus time for a typical resin infusion molding. During the resin infusion stage, the

15

L V D T s m e a su re d a p p ro xim a te ly a 1 .7 8 m m g a p a b o ve the target mold gap. At this stage, this extra


mold gap allows for a quicker resin infusion because the preform permeability is much higher with
thicker gaps. After the application of air pressure within the autoclave, the measured mold gap
declined steadily towards the target over a period an hour. Despite the excess resin in the tool, the
mold gap appeared to decline below the designed gap. This aberration was thought to result from
ca lib ra tin g th e L V D T s a t a m b ie n t te m p e ra tu re in ste a d o f a t th e e le va ted temperature in the
autoclave.
0.12
LVDT locations
Top Left
Top Right
Bottom Right
Bottom Left

Autoclave Pressure
Applied at 38 minutes

0.1

Gap (mils)

0.08

0.06
Tool initially open
more than .070"
0.04
Target mold gap

0.02

0
0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

-0.02
Time (minutes)

Figure 16: Mold gaps at the corners during composite cure cycle
Due to the combination of a thick composite tool and poor heat transfer within the autoclave, the cure
cycle lasted several hours. To insure complete cure, a minimum of two hours at a mold temperature
greater than 80C was desired. The temperature profiles inside the autoclave and at two distinct
locations within the tool are plotted against time in Figure 17. The autoclave heaters were turned off
after approximately 10 hours and the mold was allowed to slowly cool within the autoclave until the
following morning.
95
90
Tool #1
Tool #2
Air #1
Air #2
Air #3

85

Temperature (C)

80

75

70

65

60

55

50
0

120

240

360

480

600
Time (minutes)

16

720

840

960

1080

1200

Figure 17: Temperatures during the cure cycle of the composite door molding
The major difference in the three composite doors molded was the mass of resin that was allowed to
b e d ra w n in to th e m o ld . C a lcu la tio n s b a se d o n th e p re fo rm s m a ss a n d th e ta rg e t fib e r vo lu m e
fraction gave an ideal target of 2550 g of resin, however this target did not include resin needed to fill
the perimeter resin runner or the resin flow into the vacuum lines. Probably the biggest uncertainty in
the resin calculations was the volumetric shrinkage of the foam cores. Although the foam core tools
were originally fabricated from a model core based on precise composite skin thickness, the molded
foam cores exhibited significant cure shrinkage. For this reason, a large excess of resin was
prepared for the first molding trial. With the first molding, the objective was to mold a composite door
with no dry spots, therefore additional resin was added until all of the vacuum ports had been filled.
For the first trial, a total of 5400 g of resin was infused into the tool. The overall appearance of the
resulting part was excellent (see Figure 18), however the door was approximately 1.7 kg overweight.

Figure 18: First molded composite door resting in mold cavity


The unusual blue and yellow coloring of the door was a result of differently dyed resins used for the
purpose of learning about the fill patterns inside the tool.
For the second molding trial, a total of 4400 g of resin was infused into the tool. This represented a
1000 g reduction from the first trial. With less resin in the tool, a few of the vacuum vents in the tool

17

were still dry (no resin) at the culmination of the infusion process. Complete preform wet-out was
dependent on obtaining additional resin flow by squeezing the tool halves together in the autoclave
with air pressure. Fortunately, sufficient additional resin flow was generated and a completely wet-out
part was molded.
After trimming, the mass of the second composite door was 10.0 kg. Although this mass still
exceeded the design target of 9.2 kg, it represented a 0.9 kg mass reduction from the first composite
door. Because the second composite door was still completely wet-out, it was decided to further
reduce the mass of resin for the third molding trial.
For the third molding trial, a total of 4000 g of resin was used. As expected, even more of the vacuum
vents were still dry at the end of the resin infusion step. After rolling the tool into the autoclave and
applying air pressure, the tool halves were once again squeezed together forcing additional resin flow.
Although all regions of the third door appeared to be wet-out, the class A outer surface appeared to
b e re sin sta rve d in se ve ra l lo ca l re g io n s ( S e e F ig u re 1 9 ). D u e to th e a p p e a ra n ce o f th e th ird d o o rs
outer surface, it was decided that 4000 g was the lower limit for resin infusion. The mass of the
trimmed third composite door was 9.8 kg which is 0.6 kg greater than the design target but within
acceptable limits.

Figure 19: Third molded composite door showing resin starvation on outer skin

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Stiffness Validation Testing


T h e stiffn e ss o f th e p ro to typ e co m p o site sid e d o o r w a s m e a su re d fo llo w in g G M s sta n d a rd
procedures. The measured stiffness values were then compared to those from the production steel
door-in-white, the design allowables, and the finite element analysis predictions.

Header Rigidity
For the all of the header rigidity testing, the latch side flange was clamped at three locations to one
test stanchion and the door hinges were fixed to the opposite test stanchion. Load was introduced at
two different locations on the window frame header, the front location located along the A-pillar and
the rear location located near the top of the B-pillar. Inboard and outboard load deflection curves
were measured at each test location. A maximum load of 360 kN was applied at the front location
while a maximum load of 540 kN was applied to the rear location. Photos illustrating the test set-up
are provided in Figure 20. Maximum deflections and permanent set values for each test were taken
from the load vs. deflection data collected.

a.

b.

Figure 20: Photos of front (a) and rear (b) loading points for upper frame rigidity tests
For comparison to the composite door, test data from the steel door were obtained. The maximum
deflection and permanent set data from both the production steel and the composite front side doors
are given in Table I below.
Table I: Header Rigidity Test Result Comparison

Rear Out
Rear In
Front Out
Front In

Deflections
SSTS max
Steel Door
19 mm
15.3 mm
19 mm
16.0 mm
19 mm
7.7 mm
19 mm
8.2 mm

Composite
15.7 mm
19.1 mm
11.0 mm
11.5 mm

19

Permanent Set
SSTS max
Steel Door
1.5 mm
3.1 mm
1.5 mm
2.3 mm
1.5 mm
0.4 mm
1.5 mm
0.4 mm

Composite
0.1 mm
1.6 mm
0.4 mm
0.7 mm

Although the composite door was more compliant than its steel counterpart, the measured deflections
were either at or below the designated maximum allowables. The permanent set measurements at
the rear header location were much lower for the composite door than for the steel door. In fact the
steel door permanent set values exceed the target.

Beltline Stiffness
GM standard procedures were followed for measuring the inner and outer beltline stiffness of the
composite door. The composite door was fixed to stanchions by its latch and hinges only. No clamps
on the latch side flange were used. A hemi-spherical load nose was used to introduce the load at the
midpoint of the beltline. The load was directed outboard on the inner belt beam and inboard on the
outer belt beam. For these tests, deflection is defined by the closing of gap between inner and outer
window flanges. Figure 21 provides a photo of the experimental set-up.

Figure 21: Beltline Rigidity test set-up for inner belt beam of composite door
The measured deflections and permanent set values for both the composite door and its steel
counterpart are given in Table II,

Test
Beltline Outer
Beltline Inner

SSTS
7.0 mm
3.0 mm

Table II: Beltline Rigidity Test Results


Deflection
Permanent Set
Steel Door
Composite
SSTS
Steel Door
Composite
5.7 mm
3.1 mm
0.5 mm
0.2 mm
0.1 mm
6.8 mm
1.7 mm
0.5 mm
0.5 mm
0.1 mm

Across the beltline, the composite door is significantly stiffer than the steel baseline part, especially on
the inner belt. Whereas, the composite door easily meets the target for deflection on the inner belt,

20

the steel door deflects twice the allowable distance. Permanent set values for the composite door
were also very low-- less than half of those of the steel door.
Unfortunately, the FEA predictions for deflection were again not very accurate. For the beltline outer,
the structural analysis calculated 6.5 mm vs the measured value of 3.1 mm. For the beltline inner, the
calculated value was 3.6 mm as compared to the test value of 1.7 mm. The structural analysis
appears to have overestimated the beltline deflections by more than a factor of two. A review of the
NASTRAN analysis deck did not identify the source of the overestimation. Possibly, the deflection
values were taken directly from the distance traveled by a single node rather than the desired
difference between opposing nodes on either side of the window pocket. Without this overestimation
of beltline deflection, the design could have used thinner composite skins in the inner beltbeam, or
perhaps even used glass fiber instead of carbon fiber and still met the design targets.

Torsional Rigidity
GM standard procedure was followed for measuring the upper and lower torsional rigidity of the
composite door. For these tests, the composite door was fixed by the latch and hinges to stanchions
and the load was introduced via a hemi-spherical load nose. Deflection was measured at a point
directly opposite the load nose in line with the applied load. Figure 22 provides a photo of the
experimental set-up.

Figure 22: Upper torsional rigidity test on composite door.


Torsional rigidity was measured at an upper and a lower location as defined in the test procedure.
The measured deflections and permanent sets for the composite door and its steel counterpart are
presented in Table III.
Table III: Torsional Rigidity Test Results for Steel and Composite Doors
Deflection
Permanent Set
Test
SSTS
Steel Door Composite
SSTS
Steel Door Composite
Torsional- upper
10.0 mm
4.9 mm
8.1 mm
1.5 mm
0.2 mm
1.5 mm
Torsional- lower
7.0 mm
4.0 mm
7.6 mm
1.5 mm
0.3 mm
0.8 mm

21

Although the composite door was significantly more compliant than the steel door in torsion, it came
close to meeting the design requirements. The deflection during the lower torsional test exceeded
the target by only 0.6 mm. The structural analysis had predicted that the composite door would
deflect 6.1 mm and 6.9 mm in the upper and lower torsional tests respectively. Actual deflections
were a bit higher than predicted but the predictions were within a reasonable tolerance.

Vertical Rigidity
GM standard procedure was followed for measuring the vertical rigidity of the composite door on a
test fixture. In this test, the door is supported only by its hinges to a fixed test stanchion and a 900 N
downward load is applied at the latch. Deflection and permanent set are measured at the bottom of
the door directly beneath the latch assembly. A photo of the test set-up is provided in Figure 23.

Figure 23: Vertical Rigidity Test on the Composite Door


For the equivalent steel door, the vertical rigidity test was performed with the door mounted on a
ve h icle b o d y. G M s d e sig n ta rg e ts u se d iffe re n t m a xim u m d e fle ctio n s d e p e n d in g o n w h e th e r th e d o o r
is tested on a fixture or on a body. Test results and the corresponding targets are given in Table IV.
Table IV: Vertical Rigidity Test Results for the Steel and Composite Doors
Deflection
Permanent Set
Test
SSTS
Steel Door Composite
SSTS
Steel Door Composite
Vertical- fixture
10.0 mm
------8.3 mm
1.0 mm
------0.7 mm
Vertical- body
16.0 mm
17.5 mm
------1.6 mm
5.0 mm
------Although a direct comparison between the steel and composite doors is not possible, since the testing
conditions were different, it is clear that the composite door meets the targets while the steel door
does not. The permanent set performance of the steel door exceeded the target by a factor of three

22

while the composite door met the target. In this particular loading case, the single piece design of the
composite door with the hinges adhesively bonded to a thick composite sandwich section proved to
be very effective.

Summary and Next Steps


Development of a composite door was undertaken with the goal of achieving cost-effective mass
reduction. A relatively low cost prototype fabrication process for structural composites was developed
that starts with a mathematical part model and ends with a molded composite part ready for testing.
A low mass design was achieved by using sandwich composite construction based on polyurethane
foam cores and glass fiber/epoxy skins. Material cost was minimized by specifying a low cost glass
fiber plain weave fabric as the primary reinforcement and sparing use of unidirectional glass and
carbon fiber reinforcements. Preforms were handcrafted by draping textile reinforcements over
molded foam cores. Prototype doors were molded via vacuum assisted resin transfer molding.
Compared to the steel door-in-white, a 35% mass reduction was achieved. Structural validation
testing was used to confirm that the composite door met the various stiffness based design criteria.
For the most part, the finite element modeling predictions were reasonably close to the measured
deflections for the stiffness tests.
Two major technical hurdles need to be cleared before a composite intensive side door of this
type could be put into production. The first is the challenge of obtaining a class A outer surface on a
liquid molded structural composite. The glass fiber readthrough on the outer surface from the
structural reinforcements could not be effectively hidden with the use of surface veils alone. The
second technical challenge is the development of a short cycle time, low cost process to fabricate
preforms from glass fiber broad goods. Both of these technical challenges need to be met in order to
enable automotive applications of structural composites.

References
1. P . T ho rto n, R . Jeryan, C rash E nergy M anagem ent in C o m po site A uto m o tive S tructures, Int. J. Im pact E ngng, 1988, & ,
167-180
2. M . P hilipps,L . P atberg, R . D ittm ann, H . A dam , S tructural Analysis and Testing of Composites in Automotive
C rashw o rthiness A pplicatio n, S A E paper # 981140, S A E Internatio nal C o ngress and E xpo sitio n, 1998
3. E . C hirw a, L . O L arey, S . M uhtaseb, S ide Im pact P ro tectio n: the U se o f 3 -D Reinforced Composite P anels,
International Journal of Crash, 1996,1(3), 315-330
4. L . P atberg, M . P hilipps, R . D ittm ann, F ibre-reinforced composites in the car side structure, Proc Instn Mech Engrs ,
1999, vol.213 part D, 417-423
5. S . C heo n, D . L ee, K . Jeo ng, Composite side-door impact beams fo r passenger cars, Composite Structures, 1997 38(14), 229-239
6. H. Adam, L. Patberg, M. Phillips, R. D ittm ann, T esting o f N ew C o m po site S ide D o o r C o ncepts, S A E P aper # 980859,
SAE International Congrss and Exposition, 1998

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