Robots take flight at composites centre

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The UK’s National Composites Centre (NCC) has deployed its £2.5m twin-headed robotic automatic fibre placement (AFP) machine – the first of its kind in the country.

The first use of the machine is by NCC member GKN Aerospace, as part of the UK-funded and Airbus-led Next Generation Composite Wing (NGCW) research and development programme focused on the next generation of super-efficient aircraft wings.

Keeping UK ahead

NGCW involves a consortium of UK-based academic, public and industrial partners including, apart from Airbus and GKN Aerospace, Umeco, GE Aerospace, Bombardier and QinetiQ. The work aims to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of global aircraft wing technology and wins a significant share of the growing global aircraft market – predicted to reach 26,000 aircraft sales over the next 20 years.

This new AFP machine offers UK industry its first opportunity to consistently and rapidly create complex, double-curved structures in composite materials, says NCC, applying their key attributes – light weight, high strength, flexibility and lack of corrosion – to structures such as high-performance wing shapes and automotive parts.

Weight, time and waste savings

Conventionally, composites are laid up by hand from reinforcement plies in tape form. The process is very time-consuming and can introduce problems of variability in the finished product. Automated tape lay-up using the new machine allows eight tapes to be controlled individually to apply material to complex profiles.

Supplied by Coriolis Composites (France), the machine comprises two robotic arms, each with an AFP head. The arms work both independently and cooperatively, depositing fibres rapidly in specific directions and to varying thicknesses to create highly accurate and repeatable composite structures.

These structures will be able to meet detailed strength and stiffness specifications, says NCC, offering significant potential for future enhancements. Early indications are that aircraft structures created by AFP machinery could be some 20% lighter than comparable metal ones, reducing aircraft fuel consumption and emissions. Material wastage could be reduced by 75%, reducing manufacturing costs and bringing further environmental benefits.

Meeting growing demand

Colin Sirett, Airbus’s UK Head of Research and Technology Business Development and Partnerships, says: “With an order backlog of over 4,400 aircraft and projected growth in air travel demand of 45% over the next 10 years, research into high-volume and low-cost manufacturing is essential for Airbus to meet future market needs. NCC is a powerful partner in developing the necessary technologies.”

Rich Oldfield, technical director, GKN Aerospace comments: “The effectiveness of rapid material deposition techniques such as AFP will be critical if the UK is to lead in achieving the fast, accurate manufacturing turnrounds necessary to meet escalating future market demand.”