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#TPRCminds: Thibault

Senior Research Engineer

Thibault Hernandez’s fascination with engineering and particularly the aerospace world began at an early age. His father and grandfather were both engineers. The first served in the French army as an aviation engineer. He passed on his passion. Thibault became specifically interested in the materials and components of aircraft. Since 2019, he has been fueling his passion for composites as a senior research engineer at the TPRC.

Read other #TPRCminds interviews.

‘I remember my father taking me to the Paris Air Show’, says Thibault. ‘I was only around six years old. It’s one of my earliest childhood memories. I thought it was fascinating. Even then, I knew that I wanted to do “something” with aircraft when I grew up. Later, I started tinkering with aircraft models, which I still do today. At the TPRC I get to tinker as well, but on a slightly bigger and more professional scale,’ he says with a wink.

Thibault obtained his MEng in Mechanical Engineering from Compiègne University of Technology (France) and left for the UK to specialize in the field of aerospace with an MSc in Aerospace Materials. He completed his PhD at Cranfield University, approximately 90 minutes from London. At the same time, he gained work experience at Airbus Helicopter and at different entities of Safran Group such as SAFRAN Aircraft Engines in France and SAFRAN Landing Systems in the UK, one of the world’s largest suppliers in the aircraft industry.

At Airbus helicopter, Thibault was able to witness the prototype blade of the H160 helicopter not yet revealed to the world at the time. The use of composite materials enables the rotor blades to have a double-swept shape that reduces the noise generation drastically. ‘I remember looking at it, in 2012, from afar and asking myself why this blade was curved like that and how it was even possible. My supervisor told me “You did not see anything there”. Later, the H160 received its EASA certification in July 2020. It was my first jump into the importance of confidentiality in the aviation world, especially in the advanced materials area such as composite materials.’

‘I hadn’t been working at SAFRAN Aircraft Engines long when I got to examine composite engine parts that were dented. These parts belonged to CFM-56 class engines and were made of thermoset materials. These ones, when damaged, were instantly scrapped, and I thought to myself: there must be another way. If these parts were to be made of thermoplastic composite, a fracture or dent can be repaired by applying heat to the area and restoring them to their original shapes.’

What did you discover during that time?
‘During my time in the aircraft industry, I discovered that thermoplastic composites were still something of a novelty. The first steps towards structural application were being taken. At SAFRAN Landing Systems, my colleagues were familiar with thermosets, but not so much with thermoplastic composites. I was assigned a project as part of that transition and it proved to be very interesting.
We started to construct landing gear components from composites, which inevitably resulted in weight and fuel savings and long-life structures. The landing gear is subject to a lot of stress, especially on military aircraft. And the last thing you want is for a component to come loose if it breaks. The aviation industry still tends to be quite conservative, even more so than the car industry. Fortunately, however, appreciation of the advantages of thermoplastic composites is growing steadily, even when it comes to recycling.’

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Your transfer to the TPRC and a hitherto foreign country didn’t come as a complete surprise. How did it happen?
‘During my PhD, I was introduced to Winand Kok, Director of Expert Services at Toray Advanced Composites, one of the partners in the TPRC consortium. Winand certainly ignited the spark of TPRC within me and introduced me to the right persons. A phone call and a visit later, we came to an agreement.’

At the TPRC, Thibault’s main focus is on bilateral projects with partners in- and outside of the TPRC consortium. He also is developing a course within his area of expertise: the welding of thermoplastic composites and bonding with thermoset adhesives. He investigates which welding technique is best suited to a range of different situations. ‘There are quite a number of options,’ Thibault explains. ‘I mainly focus on fusion bonding such as the resistance and induction welding processes. While the manufacturing of individual parts is at a proper level of maturity, the integration and assembly of these parts is far less advanced. This urgently calls for rapid technological development, particularly in fusion bonding. That kind of progress cannot be made without significant improvements in the accuracy of material and process modelling. Combined with well-controlled and closely monitored manufacturing processes, this leads to predictable structural performance.

The course I am developing on this topic is very practical. Instead of waiting ten years, my work can be applied as part of our Roadmap today. At TPRC, we certainly look to the future, for example when it comes to the bonding of titanium to thermoplastic composites. While there is a definite need for that, my focus is on the now. This is in line with my previous role in the UK, where my work was also practical and applicable. I have a “British” mindset when it comes to solving problems: straightforward, down to earth and getting on with the job. That works well here, too. At TPRC, it’s a bit of both. Our PhD students are often theoretical and visionary, while other colleagues are very hands-on. A perfect combination if you ask me.’

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Now you have brought your practical approach to Enschede. Outside of work, what are the similarities and differences between your life in the UK, France and here?
‘First of all, the international community I interact with at work is similar to my experience in the UK. I see that as a major plus. I have colleagues from India, Mexico, Italy, France, Germany and I’m sure I have forgotten a few.
One difference is that TPRC strikes me as very friendly and young. I always used to be the youngest, but here, at 29, I am already among the seniors. There isn’t much hierarchy, we all help one another. If you have a good idea, you are told to go ahead and pursue it. That’s the response I got when I first pitched the idea for my course to our management. From the word go, I was given the freedom and responsibility to make it happen. That suits me very well.’

You moved to Hengelo. How do you like living in Twente?
‘Well, I grew up near Versailles, so this took some getting used to. It is more peaceful here, which can be nice. And it’s very green. I enjoy cycling to work. I also notice that, as a foreigner, I am part of the community here, though it’s taken a little while. In southern European countries, people are very open from the start and create a sense of family wherever they go. Here people can be a bit more distant at first. But my English takes me much further here than it would in France. There you don’t stand a chance unless you speak French. I think the quality of life is good here, too. What I pay for my apartment would only get me a single room back in the south of the UK. There’s a fair bit of overlap between my professional and my private life. My girlfriend is completing a PhD at the University of Ghent, working on new polymers. TPRC is hosting the SAMPE Benelux meeting in May 2022 and she will be there as well. So even in my spare time I often get to work with new materials, and I enjoy that very much.’

Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others who are considering joining the TPRC?
‘Do it! There are all kinds of opportunities at TPRC and every aspect of thermoplastic composites has something to offer. Whether it’s simulation, manufacturing, processing, prototyping, testing... you name it. Students, PhD candidates and researchers pool their resources here on a daily basis and we really are pioneering. The strong connection with the industry makes our work extra valuable. We are a tight-knit, easy-going group. The vibe is good. I watch people around me grow every day and TPRC couldn’t wish for a better compliment than that.’


Our series #TPRCminds introduces you to the people behind our success. Who are they? What is their background?
What drives them and what do they dream about? How do they look at the future of thermoplastic composites?

Continue reading other #TPRCminds episodes:

Photos ©Gijs van Ouwerkerk

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