Tag Archives: composites

My Engineering Day

Photograph of roof tops and chimneys in Liverpool.Today is ‘This is Engineering’ day organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering to showcase what engineers and engineering really look like, celebrate our impact on the world and shift public perception of engineering towards an appreciation that engineers are a varied and diverse group of people who are critical to solving societal challenges.  You can find out more at https://www.raeng.org.uk/events/online-events/this-is-engineering-day-2020.  I have decided to contribute to ‘This is Engineering’ day by describing what I do on a typical working day as an engineer. 

Last Wednesday was like many other working days during the pandemic.  I got up about 7am went downstairs for breakfast in our kitchen and then climbed back upstairs to my home-office in the attic of our house in Liverpool [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau’ on April 8th, 2020].  I am lucky in that my home-office is quite separate from the living space in our house and it has a great view over the rooftops.  I arrived there at about 7.45am, opened my laptop, deleted the junk email, and dealt with the emails that were urgent, interesting or could be replied to quickly.  At around 8am, I closed my email and settled down to write the first draft of a proposal for funding to support our research on digital twins [see ‘Tacit hurdle to digital twins’ on August 26th, 2020].  I had organised a meeting earlier in the week with a group of collaborators and now I had the task of converting the ideas from our discussion into a coherent programme of research.  Ninety caffeine-fuelled minutes later, I had to stop for a Google Meet call with a collaborator at Airbus in Toulouse during which we agreed the wording on a statement about the impact our recent research efforts.  At 10am I joined a Skype call for a progress review with a PhD student on our dual PhD programme with National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, so we were joined by his supervisor in Taiwan where it was 6pm [see ‘Citizens of the World’ on November 27th, 2019].  The PhD student presented some very interesting results on evaluating the waviness of fibres in carbon-fibre composite materials using ultrasound measurements which he had performed in our laboratory in Liverpool.  Despite the local lockdown in Liverpool due to the pandemic, research laboratories on our campus are open and operating at reduced occupancy to allow social distancing.

After the PhD progress meeting, I had a catch-up session with my personal assistant to discuss my schedule for the next couple of weeks before joining a MS-Teams meeting with a couple of colleagues to discuss the implications of our current work on computational modelling and possible future directions.  The remaining hour up to my lunch break was occupied by a conference call with a university in India with whom we are exploring a potential partnership.  I participated in my capacity as Dean of the School of Engineering and joined about twenty colleagues from both institutions discussing possible areas of collaboration in both research and teaching.  Then it was back downstairs for a half-hour lunch break in the kitchen. 

Following lunch, I continued in my role as Dean with a half-hour meeting with Early Career Academics in the School of Engineering followed by internal interviews for the directorship of one of our postgraduate research programmes.  At 3.30pm, I was able to switch back to being a researcher and meet with a collaborator to discuss the prospects for extending our work on tracking synthetic nanoparticles into monitoring the motion of biological entities such as viruses and bacteria [see ‘Modelling from the cell through the individual to the host population’ on May 5th 2020].  Finally, as usual, I spent the last two to three hours of my working day replying to emails, following up on the day’s meetings and preparing for the following day.  One email was a request for help from one of my PhD students working in the laboratory who needed a piece of equipment that had been stored in my office for safekeeping.  So, I made the ten-minute walk to campus to get it for her which gave me the opportunity to talk face-to-face with one of the post-doctoral researchers in my group who is working on the DIMES project [see ‘Condition-monitoring using infra imaging‘ on June 17th, 2020].  After dinner, my wife and I walked down to the Albert Dock and along the river front to Princes Dock and back up to our house.

So that was my Engineering Day last Wednesday!


Logos of Clean Sky 2 and EUThe DIMES project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 820951.  The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

Thinking out of the box leads to digital image correlation through space

This is the third in a short series of posts on recent engineering research published by my research group.  Actually, two have already been published: ‘Salt increases nanoparticle diffusion‘ on April 22nd, 2020; and ‘Spatio-temporal damage maps for composite materials‘ on May 6th, 2020 and then I got distracted.  This third one arose from the same project as the time-damage maps which was sponsored by the United States Air Force.  The time-damage maps allow us to explore the evolution of failure in complex materials; however, we already know that damage tends to initiate from imperfections or flaws in the microstructure in the material.  New continuous fibre reinforced composite (CFRC) materials based on ceramics are very sensitive to defects or anomalies in their microstructure, such as misalignment of fibres.  However, they are capable of withstanding temperatures in excess of 1500 degrees Centigrade, which offers the opportunity to use them in jet engines or nuclear power plants to help generate energy more efficiently.  Therefore, it is worthwhile investigating effective methods of inspecting their microstructure which we can do either destructively by repetitively polishing away the surface of a sample and viewing it in a microscope, or non-destructively using x-ray tomography.  In both cases, the result is hundreds of ‘images’ containing millions of data values from which it is challenging to extract useful information.  In our work, we have used a little lateral thinking, to show how digital image correlation, usually used to track deformation of structures using multiple images collected over time [see ‘256 shades of grey‘ on January 22nd, 2014] , can be used to track fibres through the multiple images of the layers of the microstructure.  The result is the sort of ‘stick’ diagram in the image showing the orientation of fibres through the sample.  We have demonstrated that our new algorithm was more reliable and 30 times faster than its nearest rival.

The image shows, at the top, a typical stack of images from the microscope of a ceramic matrix composite; and, at the bottom, a plot of 3d profiles of the fibres tracked using the DIC-based method with the fibres orientated nominally at ±45° from the sectioning (x-y) plane shown in red and green colours.


Amjad K, Christian WJR, Dvurecenska K, Chapman MG, Uchic MD, Przybyla CP & Patterson EA, Computationally efficient method of tracking fibres in composite materials using digital image correlation, Composites Part A, 129:105683, 2020.


Spatio-temporal damage maps for composite materials

Earlier this year, my group published a new technique for illustrating the development of damage as a function of both space and time in materials during testing in a laboratory.  The information is presented in a damage-time map and shows where and when damage appears in the material.  The maps are based on the concept that damage represents a change in the structure of the material and, hence, produces changes in the load paths or stress distribution in the material.  We can use any of a number of optical techniques to measure strain, which is directly related to stress, across the surface of the material; and then look for changes in the strain distribution in real-time.  Wherever a permanent change is seen to occur there must also be permanent deformation or damage. We use image decomposition techniques that we developed some time ago [see ‘Recognizing strain‘ on October 28th, 2018], to identify the changes. Our damage-time maps remove the need for skilled operators to spend large amounts of time reviewing data and making subjective decisions.  They also allow a large amount of information to be presented in a single image which makes detailed comparisons with computer predictions easier and more readily quantifiable that, in turn, supports the validation of computational models [see ‘Model validation‘ on September 18th, 2012].

The structural integrity of composite materials is an on-going area of research because we only have a limited understanding of these materials.  It is easy to design structures using materials that have a uniform or homogeneous structure and mechanical properties which do not vary with orientation, i.e. isotropic properties.  For simple components, an engineer can predict the stresses and likely failure modes using the laws of physics, a pencil and paper plus perhaps a calculator.  However, when materials contain fibres embedded in a matrix, such as carbon-fibres in an epoxy resin, then the analysis of structural behaviour becomes much more difficult due to the interaction between the fibres and with the matrix.  Of course, these interactions are also what make these composite materials interesting because they allow less material to be used to achieve the same performance as homogeneous isotropic materials.  There are very many ways of arranging fibres in a matrix as well as many different types of fibres and matrix; and, engineers do not understand most of their interactions nor the mechanisms that lead to failure.

The image shows, on the left, the maximum principal strain in a composite specimen loaded longitudinally in tension to just before failure; and, on the right, the corresponding damage-time map indicating when and where damage developing during the tension loading.


Christian WJR, Dvurecenska K, Amjad K, Pierce J, Przybyla C & Patterson EA, Real-time quantification of damage in structural materials during mechanical testing, Royal Society Open Science, 7:191407, 2020.

Third time lucky

At the end of last year my research group had articles published by the Royal Society’s journal  Open Science in two successive months [see ‘Press Release!‘ on November 15th, 2017 and ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017].  I was excited about both publications because I had only had one article published before by the Royal Society and because the Royal Society issues a press release whenever it publishes a new piece of science.  However, neither press release generated any interest from anyone; probably because science does not sell newspapers (or attract viewers) unless it is bad news or potentially life-changing.  And our work on residual stress around manufactured holes in aircraft or on the motion of nanoparticles does not match either of these criteria.

Last month, we did it again with an article on ‘An experimental study on the manufacture and characterization of in-plane fibre-waviness defects in composites‘.  Third time lucky, because this time our University press office were interested enough to write a piece for the news page of the University website, entitled ‘Engineers develop new method to recreate fibre waviness defects in lab‘.  Fibre waviness is an issue in the manufacture of structural components of aircraft using carbon fibre reinforced composites because kinks or waves in the fibres can cause structural weaknesses.  As part of his PhD, supported by Airbus and the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Will Christian developed an innovative technique to generate defects in our lab so that we can gain a better understanding of them. Read the article or the press release to find out more!

Image shows fracture through a waviness-defect in the top-ply of a carbon-fibre laminate observed in a microscope following sectioning after failure.


Christian WJR, DiazDelaO FA, Atherton K & Patterson EA, An experimental study on the manufacture and characterisation of in-plane fibre-waviness defects in composites, R. Soc. open sci. 5:180082, 2018.