What are smart composite structures?

Man looking at composite structures in his hands

Smart materials can be effectively utilised to design lightweight load-bearing smart composite structures for a wide range of applications ranging from noise and vibration control to mechanical power transmission and structural health monitor. 

The definition

Smart structure 

To be able to define a smart composite structure we must first define what a smart structure is. 

A smart structure is a physical structure that has three key characteristics:

  • A definite purpose,
  • Means and imperative to achieve that purpose, 
  • The pattern of functioning of a universal computer or a biological entity. 

For the structure to be considered smart, it also has to have the following basic components:

  • Data acquisition (tactile sensing): collect the required raw data needed for appropriate control and monitoring of the structure.
  • Data transmission (sensing nerves): forward the raw data to the local and central control units. 
  • Command and control centre (brain): analyse the data, reach the appropriate conclusion and determine the specific actions.
  • Data instructions (motion nerves): transmit the decisions and the associated instructions back to the members, and
  • Controlling devices (muscles): take action by triggering the controlling devices/units. 

Smart composite structure

Now that we got that out of the way, let us define a smart composite structure. Simply put, a smart composite structure is a host structure made of composite material in which the different basic components mentioned above are embedded. It is essentially a composite material in which smart materials are integrated to make it functional. 

To create a smart composite structure, transducers and an electrical conductor network are glued onto the structure to be controlled and the electronics are located on the outside of the structure.


Vibration suppress

Mechanical vibrations can have a negative impact on systems caused by failures that occur by fatigue, vibrations and noise influencing customer’s comfort, or by limiting the operation conditions of systems when dealing with precision engineering. What is neat about smart composite structures is that they can modify their own properties in order to modify their vibration or vibroacoustic behaviours so that the drawbacks detailed above are managed. 

Structural health monitoring (SMH)

The embedded transducer network can check the quality or the ageing of the host composite structure over a period of time. This means that the network is able to detect a fibre crack or other failures. It is particularly helpful for locating flaws or to even predicting failure events. Cracks in composite structures in particular are often behind a layer of paint and are therefore invisible, although they have a great influence on the rigidity or strength which can cause major risks.

Energy harvesting (EH)

Because of how sophisticated energy harvesting devices and technologies are, it is possible to integrate these EH devices into the composite structure and supply electric energy from vibration energy. This results in damping plus the added benefit of energy harvesting. 

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