Automation in composites taking off

  • 16-Sep-2010 08:06 EDT
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Using its new automated stiffener forming process, along with more favorable ergonomics and a reduction in variability, ATK has observed a 5 to 10 X rate improvement vs. traditional hand lay-up.

Composite Market Reports is bullish on automation for composites applications in the aerospace industry.

“Conservatively speaking, my market data indicates that today there is just a little under 20% of the entire volume of aerostructures made of composites created with AFP [automated fiber placement] or ATL [automated tape layers],” said Chris Red, an analyst with the consulting firm. “Over the next 10 years, I expect that figure to roughly double to 40%.”

Not only will such machines capture a larger share of the composites pie, the pie itself will grow from an estimated 2.4 million lb in 2010 to 14 or 15 million lb in 2020. What will drive this growth are the two programs that use perhaps the largest amount of composites ever in commercial aircraft: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 350 XWB, along with the military Joint Strike Fighter program from Lockheed Martin.

“There is an awful lot of capacity that needs to be built up as the 787 and A350 programs start to kick in to high-rate production [in about 2015],” Red said.

Productivity improvements to date have driven acceptance of automation, he noted. “These automated machines have offered about an order of magnitude improvement in the lay-down efficiency rate, from about 2 lb/h for hand lay-up.”

Ingersoll Machine Tools is an example of a company that has greatly increased the productivity of its equipment. Tino Oldani, company President, said that in early 2007, typical productivity for an Ingersoll machine was about 7.6 lb/h. Through a process that first identified and then improved important tasks, the lay-down rate shot up to 31 lb/h by the start of 2008. By the end of that year, productivity increased to about 46 lb/h maximum. The near future, with increased productivity, could see about 83 lb/h, he said.

Ingersoll’s latest offering is its Mongoose V1, a vertical AFP. The Mongoose boasts a newly designed head-and-creel module with automatic exchange. Automatic quality control uses a proprietary mix of scanners and cameras to inspect the surface as it is laid and compares it to stored CAD data. If there is a problem, such as broken fiber, the system alerts the operator to take corrective action.

“Today, when you lay down a ply, there is only visual inspection by the operator and QA specialists,” said Oldani. “Our fully integrated inspection system identifies conformity and discrepancies of each course in real time. Half the problems can be corrected by the machine itself.”

Red from Composite Market Reports puts inspection and rework in perspective. “The cost of typical composite structures for commercial aircraft is in the range of $230 to $275/lb for the finished structure, including inspection,” he said. “Only about $50 to $70/lb are composite reinforcements, and a smaller part is machine costs. About $100/lb is inspection and post work. About 33 to 50% of the cost of aerostructures is tied up in hand inspection and correcting defects after processing.”

At ATK, “in general, we are looking for automated tape layers and fiber-placement machines to run reliably and consistently,” said Vern Benson, the company’s Chief Engineer-Composites Manufacturing Development. “That helps improve our deposition rate. The overall speed of the machine is not as critical as just making sure that the machines stay clean and run consistently.”

Benson also sees that, to date, much of the focus in the industry has been on automation for parts with what he terms “large acreage”—skins and shells. “In many cases, over half of the weight and cost of the structures we are building are in the stiffening components, not in the skins,” he said. “As an industry, we have done a good job of automating skins and shells, but we have not done as well at automating the stiffening elements of the structures.”

To solve this problem, ATK developed its own automation specifically designed to build long stringers and curved frames with a more automated process. “As we use more composites in larger integrated fuselage, wings, and fairings—large structures with stiffening elements in them—the stiffeners have themselves become long enough to be considered ‘large acreage’ as well,” said Benson.

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