Flightware Inc. (Guilford, CT, US) reported on Dec. 7 that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) recently awarded a contract to Flightware to develop a real-time, automated inspection system for use with automated fiber placement (AFP) equipment that makes large composite parts. This capability allows these machines to operate significantly faster with higher throughput and productivity. This provides part cost saving, reduced capital expenditure, improves production rate and improves the return on investment for composite manufacturing automation.
Flightware says most large and high-rate composite aircraft structure, military and civilian, is made today using large, high-value AFP machines. While these machines lay down or place material into a mold quickly, this operation is stopped every ply (or layer) to allow human inspectors to closely inspect and validate that the machine layup was properly performed. This is repeated dozens to hundreds of times for a single part. In many cases the time to inspect the layup by eye (by teams of inspectors with flashlights) is longer than the machine layup time and as a result the machines are often only productive (i.e. laying down material) less than 30% of the time.
Flightware’s Real Time Automated Ply Inspection (RTAPI) program builds on work previously performed under a development contract with NASA. Using commercial sensors and custom software, AFP layups are scanned and compared with the programmed layup instructions created from the part model. Deviations in excess of allowed layup tolerances are automatically detected and presented to the operator for repair. This is said to substantially reduce inspection time for manual inspection and also creates a detailed digital record of every ply of every part.
The earlier (first generation) Automated Ply Inspection (API) system consists of hardware and software designed to operate in a secondary inspection step after layup, mimicking today’s human inspection process. Under the DLA program, API is being modified to work in real time, in parallel with layup being produced by the AFP machine in real time. This RTAPI system eliminates the serial inspection step, which can comprise as much as 40% of the total cycle time for an AFP machine operating today. Substantial cost savings can be realized on a wide variety of military and civilian aircraft parts.
Flightware is working with Fives Cincinnati to develop, install and demonstrate the RTAPI system. Demonstration of the system is planned in the later part of 2016 on a Viper 7000 machine at Fives' facility in Hebron, KY, US.
Video: Flightware Automated Ply Inspection system.