Cutting Mats and Surface Protection in Composite Manufacturing – The What, Where, and Why

First, What Are Composite Materials?

Composites have been around for a long time. Composites can be any material that is made from more than one material, which are joined without being mixed into a single homogeneous material. The advantage of composites is that the finished material displays properties that neither individual material inherently had. Often, they involve opposites, such as a strong, brittle fibre and a lightweight, flexible polymer – which can produce the best of both.

Modern composites are constantly being developed, with new materials that offer highly desirable features as better alternatives to traditional materials such as steel and timber in the making of cars, aeroplanes, ships, wind turbines and all sorts of high-end machinery. Fibre-composites can provide greater strength, fire resistance, lighter weight, corrosion resistance, thermal insulation etc allowing today’s inventors and engineers to build a greener, energy-efficient, durable, safer and resilient world.

In this dynamic landscape of advanced manufacturing, where aerospace, defence, electronics, and automotive innovations thrive, the adoption of modern techniques and materials, such as additive manufacturing and composite materials, pose new challenges. Addressing these challenges is crucial to health & safety, eco-friendliness and achieving new performance levels, especially when working with advanced or novel composites. This article explores the role of worktop surface mats and cutting mats in enhancing efficiency and safety in composite manufacturing.

Challenges Of Composite Materials


The oft-quoted downside is the high cost of the materials, compared vis-à-vis with the traditional ones they replace, like metal, wood or concrete. It is only when the complete project lifetime cost savings and other benefits are factored in that they become financially attractive.

The material and production expense of composites makes avoiding waste and mistakes a much higher priority than with less advanced materials.

Working with advanced composites requires meticulous attention to avoid dents, scratches, swarf, and debris damage pre-cure. To address these concerns, specialized worktop surface mats, such as anti-static cutting mats are essential for deburring, de-moulding, and trimming in environments like hangars, electronics clean rooms, and factory assembly lines. Rhino offers a range of self-healing cutting mats with a variety of shore hardnesses and other specialist properties.

Labour Skill

Cutting composite fabric and prepreg, and doing the lay-up is a skilled labour-intensive process that requires attention to detail and experience. Finding and retaining highly skilled staff can be a challenge. Composite manufacturing has a long learning curve, so staff and apprentice retention is valuable. Paying attention to their immediate workplace space is a quick win for engagement and efficiency.

Providing the correct tools and a clean, orderly workbench goes a long way towards maximising worker output time. When a worker feels safe and valued, they are empowered for quality workmanship and motivated to go that ‘extra mile’ of discretionary effort.

Specialised Handling And Storage

Many composite fibres – especially those chosen for high strength such as carbon and ceramic, are intrinsically brittle and prone to breakage before they are encased in the final resin matrix. Shock damage (i.e. being dropped against a hard surface) can weaken the structure of the finished article. This is true of both the raw fibre and thin panels of composite fibre, and protection from even low-energy impacts is often necessary at some stages of production.

Many prepregs require freezer storage and usually have a working time of only a few days. The film adhesives and resins also have a limited shelf life, making stock control and rotation important. Using freezer-proof trays lined with a protective Rhino mat is a good idea for reducing flexural and impact damage when taking material from storage to workbench.


Cross-contamination is a significant concern when dealing with a variety of advanced composites like carbon fibre. Different resins and fibre reinforcements are used within the large family of composite materials, impacting the final product’s properties and performance.

The work surface plays a critical role in composite fibre work. It must be easily cleanable, non-static, and scratch-free to prevent surface imperfections from becoming hosts for trapped fibres. Rhino, a supplier of specialist worksurface mats, offers solutions like the Rhino Ultra-Seal and Rhino Heavy-Duty Cutting Mat. These mats feature exceptional self-healing properties, ensuring a smooth surface without scratches that can trap fibres.

Workbench surfaces made of fibrous materials, such as MDF, hardboard, or timber, can produce dust that contaminates composites during handling and lay-up. This necessitates the use of self-healing cutting mats designed to minimise cross-contamination with their easy-clean surface, devoid of knife cuts, cracks and ridges.

Another advantage of using a surface mat is that it protects the component from impact damage, as steel-topped benches can be unforgiving to parts and tools that are dropped or knocked against the surface.

Rhino recommends the Ultra-Seal Cutting Mat (6mm thick, shore hardness of 70) for handling carbon fibre and composite parts on. The Rhino Heavy-Duty Mat (4.5mm, shore hardness of 50) is ideal for precision hand cutting of carbon fibre cloth, as it will aid accurate knife cutting, keeps blades sharper for longer and will self-heal.

Maintaining the sharpness of cutting knives is crucial for safety, efficiency, and quality in the manufacturing/trimming process. A sharp knife glides through materials with minimal effort, increasing operator control and reducing the risk of accidents.

In Conclusion

Specialised mats offer protection against damage to composites and the tools used to shape and cut them.  They also help prevent cross-contamination of fibres, while maintaining sharp blades and protecting tools, bench tops and staff. By prioritising safety, adhering to recommended surface protection, and employing the right cutting tools, manufacturers and their technicians can navigate the challenges of working with advanced composites successfully.

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