AUTOMATED COMPOSITES

Manufacturing Processes

The automation of composites manufacturing has taken many forms. Automation of fiber deposition methods include Automated Fiber Placement (AFP), Automated Tape Laying (ATL), and filament winding. Automation of supporting processes includes material cutting, tool preparation and cleaning, and part inspection. The net effect of this automation, when compared to traditional, manual processes includes:

  • Greater consistency and repeatability
  • Reduced cycle times
  • Higher productivity and throughput
  • Lower labor cost
  • Expanded capability

CGTech works with many automated composites manufacturing (ACM) processes, including: ATL, AFP, Ultrasonic Knife Cutting, Laser Inspection, Machine Probing, Dry Fiber Stitching, and many more.

Automated Fiber Placement

Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) has been in use for several decades. Growing out of ATL process refinements, AFP focuses on the placement of one or more strips of material called “tows” onto a form. While traditional hand layup methods can deposit a few pounds of material per hour, AFP can deposit over 100 pounds (45+ kg) per hour at a rate of over 3000 inches per minute (+75 meters per minute), depending on part geometry. This increased capability, alongside the increase in reliability brought about by automation, help explain the widespread use of AFP among large aerostructure manufacturing firms. AFP facilitates the production of many primary and secondary aerostructures including fuselages, wing spars, wing skins, intake ducts, nacelles, and more.

While historically AFP has been used to produce large, mostly flat structures, in recent years, hardware capability has advanced to support the production of smaller, more complex forms. This has been achieved primarily through the increased use of robots. Robot-mounted AFP systems allow for highly-contoured parts to be manufactured by increasing the machine reach compared to gantry systems and can be combined with horizontal or vertical rotators to further increase producibility. When combined with the fact that robotic systems can be cheaper than large gantry systems, it is easy to see how their popularity would rise over time. The biggest drawback with robots, in the past, has been a reduced accuracy compared to other systems. This challenge has been overcome in recent years due to increased joint feedback systems and better hardware all around.

Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) is the most common form of automated composites manufacturing and has been in use for decades. It facilitates the manufacture of large primary and secondary structures while providing increased accuracy and repeatability over traditional hand layup.

Automated Tape Laying 

Automated Tape Laying (ATL) is the precursor to automated fiber placement (AFP), and in many ways is similar to AFP. For example, both processes achieve high levels of material deposition on a form and feature increased levels of reliability, repeatability, and capability when compared to hand placement of material. The types of material used in both AFP and ATL are similar, usually both are pre-impregnated unidirectional carbon fiber. However, key differences between the two processes help explain why one method is more suitable over the other for specific applications.

The most obvious difference between AFP and ATL is that material widths used for ATL are wider than AFP. ATL material, called “tape,” can range from 3in (75mm) to 12in (300mm) for most commercial applications. Although the material is oftentimes the same fiber and resin as used in AFP, wider material directly affects manufacturing capabilities. Wider material is more prone to process failure when deposited on non-flat surfaces. As a result, almost all ATL applications feature a large, flat surface. Too much curvature on a form can render ATL incapable of being used without producing significant defects. Therefore, prime applications of ATL include aircraft stringer charges and other flat parts that can be easily kitted together for gains in manufacturing efficiency.

Automated Tape Laying (ATL) is the precursor to AFP by several decades. While it is conceptually very similar to AFP, there are several process details that effect the best use case of ATL as well as some manufacturing considerations. It is best used for large, flat parts and may be unsuitable for high-curvature forms.

Filament Winding

Filament winding is the oldest and simplest of these processes. It’s primarily used to fabricate pressure vessels, pipes, and sporting equipment such as golf clubs out of glass or carbon fiber material to be autoclave-cured afterward. While the process lends itself well to automation due to the relative lack of complexity compared with AFP and ATL, and the fact that it’s a form of automated composites manufacturing currently in use, it will not be the focus of this Knowledge Center due to the mentioned relative straightforwardness of the process and somewhat limited space for innovation in future manufacturing.

NEXT IN AUTOMATED COMPOSITES

Supporting Automation

Just as the deposition of composites material can be enhanced by automation, so too can supporting processes be improved by automation.

Quality

More commercially available and capable inspection systems are prevalent than ever before, resulting in a recent shift of greater reliance on automated inspection methods.

Machine Vendors

There are many hardware machine vendors that service the automated composite manufacturing industry.