Will Robots Rule the Composites World?
Robots and automated manufacturing will play a larger role in composites manufacturing going forward and may take over the dirty and difficult jobs that people don’t like to do – sanding airplane panels, for example. But they will not eliminate the need for human workers. “I think there’s definitely a place for manual processes in the composites world. I don’t think it will ever go away,” says Blanchette. Automation wouldn’t be appropriate for low-run or complex geometric parts, for instance.
Blanchette believes that robotic manufacturing will actually create jobs because the ability to mass-produce composite parts will open new markets for the industry, such as the production of Class A body panels for vehicles.
Hollis sees robots as fundamental in obtaining the manufacturing volumes for composite parts that the auto industry requires. But the composites industry has to find a way to make its automated processes compatible with OEMs’ current infrastructure and equipment. That will likely require more changes in composites materials.
“We are developing and have developed technologies that enable composites to be used within that environment by adding increased levels of robustness and localized environmental control on the material. That really makes it a realistic possibility,” says Blackburn. If OEMs only have to make a relatively minor capital investment in a robot to manufacture composite parts – and if the production speed and the price of the composite parts are competitive – the industry could see a real boost in its sales not only to the automotive industry, but to aerospace and other markets as well.