Trends in automation: ATL and AFP technologies increase speed, flexibility
Many automated production solutions were on offer at JEC Europe 2015, and several companies made announcements. North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT, Penthalaz-Cossonay, Switzerland), known for its ultra-thin ThinPreg multiaxial prepregs, made in an automated process involving proprietary fiber spreading paired with automated tape laying (ATL) technology, can produce tapes with areal weight as low as 17 g/m2. At the show, NTPT announced a “drastically” increased production capacity with a new ATL machine (designed and developed in-house) at its facility in Poland. NTPT tapes were used to create the wings of the Solar Impulse aircraft currently attempting an around-the-world solar-powered flight. MTorres (Torres de Elorz, Navarra, Spain) revealed a huge new automated ATL head, called The Harvester (photo, top left), for massive production of flat (2D) or slightly curved parts at a rate of 250m2/hr — reportedly two to three times the normal rate for current ATL heads. Intended to decrease material costs and cycle times, the head features a patented multi-tape design that holds four 150-mm-wide tapes, creating a 600-mm bandwidth.
The concept eliminates the need for (and the cost of) pre-slit tapes, and reportedly reduces scrap rates signifi- cantly, because laydown can be reduced to one tape at the end of a course. Machines equipped with these heads are already in use by aircraft OEMs for flying part production. MTorres told CW that it is also actively developing materials and high-rate automated processing for several unnamed automotive OEMs, which are interested in developing carbon fiber material technology to replace high-strength steel parts.
Ingersoll Machine Tools Inc. (Rockford, IL, US) called attention to its work with The Ronald E. McNAIR Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at the University of South Carolina (Columbia, SC, US) and with Hexcel Corp. (Stamford, CT, US) to further develop the dry fiber placement process for aerospace production. Ingersoll is the first U.S.-based automated fiber placement (AFP) supplier to work with Hexcel’s HiTape dry fiber product. An Ingersoll-built Lynx AFP machine at The McNAIR Center will produce layups for infusion to investigate fiber steering and buildup of thick structures. Martin Keaney, the lab’s executive director, says it was designed for “open and proprietary research. It was built with industry in mind, to provide a controlled, secure environment.” Doing a lot of the work in the McNAIR lab will be Michel JL van Tooren, professor, aerospace systems design and structures, late of Fokker Aerostructures (Hoogeveen, The Netherlands), who helped develop that company’s thermoplastic bonding systems. He brings that expertise to the lab and will work on indirect induction welding and ultrasonic welding technologies. “The goal,” he says, “is to get rid of mechanical fasteners.”
Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM (Aachen, Germany) introduced a robotic fiber placement system, dubbed the Multi-Material-Head, to process all standard, unidirectional semi-finished fiber composite materials automatically (e.g., thermoplastic tapes, ther- moset prepreg towpreg, dry fiber rovings). The modular head is reportedly easy to customize to the material, heat sources (laser, hot air or infrared) can be exchanged easily, and the flexible system is aimed at small batch production or R&D.
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