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Addressing great need for automation of composites

Dr. John Russell
By Dr. John Russell Chief, Structure Technologies Branch, Air Force Research Laboratory

The aerospace industry is setting itself up for a massive conjunction of need for industrial capacity to produce parts in the near future. Pre-COVID, Boeing and Airbus estimated that 40,000 commercial aircraft will be required over the next 20 years (compared with about 25,000 in service today). The U.S. military is also researching concepts of swarms of unmanned aircraft with limited life and very low cost. Finally, the first air taxis are projected to be in service in 2023. All of these concepts will require significant use of composites to meet their range and speed requirements, which will stress today’s industrial base.

Today, the composites industrial base is predicated on hand lay up or current automated layup machines that have only 20-50 percent machine utilization. It is also still more analog than digital. Companies are dabbling in digital to solve specific pain points, such as asset tracking, but few manufactures have a true enterprise-wide Industry 4.0 environment.

A state change must happen for the aerospace industry to achieve production rates for future aircraft. First, automation of composites must be a major component to enable the coming production wave. Done right, automation will alleviate the need for significant capital investment and lessen the number of new skilled workers for manufacturing aircraft. Second, the composites community needs to embrace Industry 4.0 concepts to get actionable insights from data generated during fabrication and assembly. Key themes for future research to make automation and Industry 4.0 available for aerospace composites production include:

  • Manufacturing science tools
    Future state: Set of design for manufacturing democratized tools that can coherently assess trade space depending on point in the manufacturing life cycle.

    Potential solutions: Integrate AI/machine learning, automation, data, analytics, manufacturing and products. Use an integrated, computer-based system comprised of simulation, 3D visualization, analytics and collaboration tools to develop a virtual representation of the entire manufacturing process.
  • Low-cost, agile manufacturing and processing
    Future state: Robust understanding of low cost manufacturing process capabilities. Design constrained by identified processes resulting in a 50 percent reduction in design cycle time. Manufacturing lines that can be rapidly reconfigured to meet surge demand and various product mixes.

    Potential solution:
    Next-gen automation. Improved use of automated fiber placement/automated tow laying equipment. Robotic solutions for hand layup and forming of complex shape parts (thermoset and thermoplastic). Collaborative robots. Flexible robot systems that are able to be reprogrammed or repurposed for integration into another system.
  • Inspection
    Future state: We desire non-interfering, in-process sensors and an alternative to the proof test that applies to as-manufactured and in-service conditions.

    Potential solution: Move from inspection to measurement. This requires manufacturing simulation and in process measurement, as well as in-service structural simulation and measurement, at a level good enough to satisfy regulatory requirements. Use of Industry 4.0 tools to provide an understanding of the state of the part or assembly, not just to track them.

SME has launched a Technical Community on Composites Automation to address these needs. I am part of the technical community, and I welcome input for the discussions we are beginning.

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