Aerospace companies in the United Kingdom are developing automated processes for complex parts

With two heads and long gray pipes, the $4 million investment looked more like a science fiction character than composite manufacturing equipment. But the automated fiber placement (AFP) machine was welcomed to its new home at the National Composites Centre (NCC) in Bristol, England, by U.K. manufacturers. NCC members now have the rare opportunity to optimize parts and processes with state-of-the-art technology.

The unique dual-head automated fiber placement machine allows manufacturers to create complex, double-curved structures in composite materials. It was installed last August by Coriolis Composites, Quéven, France. It has since been used by many of NCC’s industry partners, such as GKN Aerospace, Umeco, Airbus and Bombardier.

The AFP machine was paid for by grants from the European Regional Development Fund and the South West Regional Development Agency through GKN Aerospace as part of the Next Generation Composite Wing (NGCW) research program. NGCW is a collaborative research and development program led by Airbus focused on using composite technology to replace metal in airplane wing structures.

The Twin-Headed Robot

Compared to traditional hand lay up, automated fiber placement technology could potentially save the aerospace industry time and money by producing parts faster and with enhanced precision. The AFP machine designed by Coriolis Composites uses a fiber guidance system to feed material to the robot heads using a system of flexible pipes to protect the fibers. The machine has two robotic arms, each with its own head system. The arms work independently to lay the fibers in specific directions and thicknesses. According to the NCC, automated fiber placement technology has the potential to reduce material waste by 75 percent compared to hand lay up. Composite parts are also 20 percent lighter than comparative metal parts.

“The Coriolis robotic lay up cell at NCC is the first dual AFP head system installed, allowing the possibility of increased deposition rates over a single robot and AFP head system,” says Matthew Frost, project manager at Coriolis Composites. Additionally, the NCC recently added laser heating capability to the system that allows the deposition of thermoplastic and stabilized dry materials as well as thermoset matrix materials.

The head system is smaller than that of average AFP machines, so it can lay up both male and female molds. This enables aerospace manufacturers to build all sorts of complex parts, such as the fuselage shell. Furthermore, the small size means it can be installed onto a standard industrial robot, reducing the overall investment compared to a gantry system.