Automated Dynamics is currently working with Flightware, a technology development company, to produce an automated inspection system. And according to Marcario, there’s an interesting difference between what they are doing and what others are doing. “Unlike other systems that would perform an inspection after a ply has been laid, our system would employ a sensor that’s mounted directly to the AFP head itself and would perform the inspection as the tape is being placed in real time,” says Marcario. “So ostensibly, in an ideal world, you would drive the down time for inspection down to zero.”

The system employs a sensor that dumps a data cloud into a computer program. “Most of the magic is with the computer taking these reams and reams of data and, in real time, being able to make sense of it,” he adds.

The increasing use of 3-D composite printing also opens up possibilities for robotics and AFP. Composites manufacturers could build an AFP structure on top of 3-D printed tooling, 3-D print features onto an AFP structure or overwind 3-D cores with selective AFP reinforcement. “That’s one of the big benefits of AFP technology. You can selectively reinforce in whatever angle or path or section that you want robotically,” Marcario says. The combination of manufacturing methods makes it possible to produce structures that couldn’t be made with just one technique.

Automation Advantages

At Concordia University in Montreal, researchers have been using AFP and robotics for many different types of products. “You can do things that are unique and that cannot be done using any other technique,” says Suong Van Hoa, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and editor of the book “Automated Composites Manufacturing”.

Hoa says automated production offers many other advantages. For example, using robots to produce large parts like an airplane fuselage will eliminate the variability and waste that result when many different people do lay-up. Operators can also steer the fiber, varying the orientation from place to place to optimize the design and performance of a structure.

Concordia University’s researchers are also using automation to develop new types of fabric laminates, bypassing the weaving machine by strategically laying down different tows in different position.

The university has recently been exploring robotics for the 4-D printing of composites. In 3-D printing, a robot can deposit composite materials to build, layer on layer, a product of very complicated geometry.  With 4-D printing, a robot can deposit the layers down flat and the part changes shape as it cures. “You can make a curved shape without having to make a curved mold,” Hoa says.