Robotic Carbon Fiber Layups in the Works
Imagine being able to fabricate structural carbon fiber parts without the need for traditional molds or tooling. Then, imagine being able to do it using automated robots rather than human technicians. What you would have is an impressive and efficient system for managing carbon fiber layups devoid of any manual labor.
Does this sound too fantastic to be true? Well, step back and take a deep breath. Composites World magazine reports that the technology is now being developed by a company in California. Their system has no name as of yet, but the company has created a working prototype that they are putting through its paces as they attempt to move the project along.
Automated Robots in 3D Space
Rock West Composites, a Salt Lake City, Utah company that supplies carbon fiber fabrics, prepregs, etc. to both commercial and individual fabricators, explains that the current manual layout process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. If the process can be automated and deployed without the need for traditional molds or tooling, prices could be drastically reduced.
So how does this new system work? Composites World explains it as two robots working together in 3D space. For starters, manual tooling has been replaced by a metal frame being handled by one of the robots. That robot is a 6-axis robot capable of turning the frame at a variety of different angles.
A second 6-axis robot lays carbon fiber tape in place by attaching both ends to select points on the frame. Laser heating is used to secure the tape and consolidate multiple layers as they are laid. The two robots work in tandem, with each one twisting and turning to accomplish just the right position for each piece of tape.
The company behind the system has already filed a patent for it. However, the purpose behind the patent is to simply protect the company’s use of the technology. They are not trying to keep it to themselves or keep it a secret. Composites World says the company is actively seeking to engage with partners who might be interested in helping mature the technology.
Though the technology is still a long way from production, engineers are already considering its potential uses. They mention things like airplane fuselage panels, wings, watercraft, and blades for wind turbines. Interestingly enough, none of the potential uses mentioned in the Composites World article involve complex parts. This is understandable when you see how the system works.
Without a mold or tooling, the dual robots are working with flat spaces. They may be moving in 3D space, but they can only create a flat surface by anchoring the carbon fiber tape at two ends with nothing in between. Once you start adding additional anchor points to accommodate different angles, you’re right back to creating a tool.
Despite the limitation, a properly working system would still be beneficial for all sorts of fabrications. The example of airplane wings is impressive enough.
Right now, aerospace manufacturers have to build rather large and cumbersome tools in order to fabricate wings. Those tools only offer a limited number of uses, meaning they have to be replaced quite frequently. That takes time and costs money. If the same thing could be accomplished with a robotic system working in 3D space, wing production would instantly be faster and cheaper.
Automation has been a long-standing goal in the composites industry. As manufacturers get closer to achieving that goal, they are treating the rest of us to some very interesting innovations. We look forward to how this latest system performs in the coming years.