Composites Today

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Automated ply placement system to manufacture the dry fibre preforms

Max Size: w 10m x l 15.5m x h 3.5m Fence Area: 10m x 8m

Airborne, informed that it was selected by Airbus to supply an Automated Ply Placement (APP) system to the Getafe production plant, to manufacture the dry fibre preforms for RTM structures. The Netherland headquartered Airborne is a technology leader in automation and industrialisation of advanced composites. This will be the first time a pick & place-based system is used in Airbus factories, reflecting the leading position that Airborne is building for Automated Ply Placement. The system is planned to be used for the automated production of the preforms for the A350 rear fuselage beams and maintenance door frame, made of UD and fabrics.

Dry fibre composites are an efficient method to manufacture complex, highly loaded primary structure. For this reason, Airbus is producing the A350 beams of the rear section of the fuselage with this technology.  First the preforms are made, then shaped into the right 3D geometry by hot drape forming, and finally infused with epoxy resin by Resin Transfer Moulding.

Today the preforming is still manual, as in most aerospace factories. Automating this step has proven to be difficult. Handling of the delicate composite materials in a robust, repeatable process is challenging. Furthermore, the large variety of ply shapes and the combination of several materials into a part is complex with regard to system design and robot programming.

Automated Ply Placement for dry fibre preforms

To address these challenges, Airborne has developed the Automated Ply Placement technology. The concept is to cut the materials into the required shapes, pick them with a robotised system and place them on a welding table to create the tailored blank preform. To stabilise the laminate, each ply is fixed in place by spot-welding, which activates the binder in the material. To minimise waste, the system has a dynamic buffer where the plies that are not needed yet can be temporarily placed. This way, the nesting can be optimised. It also enables the combination of different materials into one laminate, by storing the plies until all required materials are cut and available.  The system is equipped with a vision table, that can check the quality of the cut plies and increases the accuracy of placement to the required level.

The preforms have a maximum size of 3.5 metres. Airborne will enlarge the size of its standard system to accommodate these large plies.

Automated Programming to unlock the potential

One of the hurdles is that there are many different ply shapes to be processed. Airborne uses Automated Programming in all its machines, which avoids the need for robot programming. The software takes the ply design and material input, and translates this via an advanced algorithm into the correct robot motions and process parameter settings. This happens on-the-fly, which makes it very easy to implement on the shopfloor.

This approach of software-driven automation makes the systems very flexible. The user can easily upload new nest files, ply shapes or laminate definitions and the system will adapt automatically. It provides the customer the possibility to adapt to changing operational needs (for example by using dynamic nesting) or to new product designs.

In this project, Airborne will develop further its APP system to Airbus requirements, test and install the system in the factory, before handing it over to Airbus. An extensive trial period is included in the project, to ensure the system can reach the required accuracy and robustness that is needed for the highly loaded and critical primary structure components.  Airbus will support Airborne and qualify the technology to be used according to its standards.

The Automated Ply Placement is a result of years-long R&D investment of Airborne, supported by several government funded programmes such as TAPAS, Innovatiekrediet and the Dutch Mobility Fund. The development of this project is planned to be part of the Dutch Growth Fund programme.

This joint project is a great example of the Airbus-NL MoU strategic collaboration between the Netherlands and Airbus, where the bottom-up R&D development that started years ago at fundamental level is now resulting in qualification of the process for primary aircraft structure.

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