Wichita State University receives $2 million grant to advance aerospace composites

The grant will fund equipment for a NIAR-led project aimed at developing protocols for AFP processes in manufacturing thermoplastic aircraft structures. 
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Wichita State University (Wichita, Kan, U.S.) has announced that it received a $2 million grant contract from the U.S. Economic Development Association (EDA) to develop and demonstrate advanced composite material manufacturing technology.

The grant, secured by WSU Strategic Initiatives, will provide funding for essential equipment needed for the Advanced Technology Laboratory for Aerospace Systems (ATLAS) within WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research. ATLAS investigates the development of manufacturing protocols for automated fiber placement (AFP) and automated tape laying (ATL) for aircraft systems. The grant will provide funding for the purchase of a tape slitter; vacuum table; autoclave with wireless sensors, rheometer, nitrogen generator and a heated platen press, which will be used in the development of manufacturing protocols for AFP processes for thermoplastic aircraft primary structures.

Currently, the school says, labor-intensive nondestructive inspection for quality assurance interrupts AFP processes. The proposed project will develop and demonstrate incorporation of real-time inspections with AFP processes and machine learning algorithms.

The in-process inspection system developed by ATLAS researchers will learn to automatically identify manufacturing defects that are common during AFP/ATL, such as gaps, overlaps, twisted tows, missing tows, puckers and foreign object defects. It will feed digital information into machine learning algorithms to take corrective actions on subsequent manufacturing runs to improve part quality. This also is said to fit into the “Digital Factory of the Future” concept and is meant to help increase production rates of commercial and defense aircraft. 

National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) senior research scientist Waruna Seneviratne will lead the lab, which will be located at the NIAR headquarters building on the Wichita State campus. The first floor will house manufacturing development facilities, with computer-aided simulations and analysis on the third floor.

ATLAS already has several strategic partnerships with government agencies, aircraft manufacturers, equipment suppliers, material suppliers and other universities. In addition to support from the EDA, ATLAS has also received funding from the Office of Naval Research and State of Kansas for acquiring advanced AFP equipment, inspection systems and test systems, according to Wichita State.

“In the current environment, there are increasing pressures facing the aerospace and defense industries to innovate with flat budgets, record-setting production rates, increasingly complex programs and an evolving workforce,” says John Tomblin, WSU vice president for research and technology transfer. “Investments in emerging advanced manufacturing technologies are critical to maintain economic growth in our region. We want to thank the EDA for acknowledging the importance of the advanced manufacturing sector in South Central Kansas with this investment.”

“ATLAS provides a neutral ground for manufacturers to research advanced manufacturing concepts with various machine, software and processing options,” says Seneviratne. “It will also educate and train student Factory of the Future engineers on advanced manufacturing concepts.”