The aerospace industry is finding a steady increase of parts being made using carbon fiber composites; however there are a limited number of suppliers that have the proper tools needed to make these structures. Electroimpact of Mukilteo, Wash., is an engineering firm that is perfecting a robotic technology to offer a solution to this problem. The automated fiber placement (AFP) machine is a drilling and fastening machine that assembles aircraft wings.
The AFP is one of the industry’s most advanced machines for laying down carbon composites. It zips back and forth across a spinning drum, laying down half-inch-wide ribbons of black fiber as it demonstrates how it can build up a molded section of airplane fuselage at intense speeds. The machine will soon be shipped to South Korea, where it will fabricate the cone-shaped final fuselage segment for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The company has high hopes that Boeing will buy the AFP machine to build the giant carbon fiber composite wing for its soon-to-be-launched 777X airliner.
Eelctroimpact has about 610 employees worldwide and ongoing projects with Embraer in Brazil and Comac in China. AFP technology comprises about 10 percent of the company’s business.
In contrast to the high-performance, customized, complete AFP machines, there are separate AFP heads that can be attached to the arm of an off-the-shelf industrial robot – a much less expensive, flexible solution for less complex jobs. The smallest version of the custom-built AFP machine costs $5 million. Electroimpact has built bigger models for making larger structures that run up to $25 million.