NASA is interested in automating the parts inspection process and decreasing the time it takes using vision systems, thermography and other electromagnetic technologies. “We want to do that inspection as the material is placed,” Wu adds. The system could flag operators immediately if something goes wrong, allowing them to correct the problem during the manufacturing process. That would reduce the amount of time needed for post-production inspection. For Spirit AeroSystems, that could mean an increase in the throughput on its existing AFP machine, boosting productivity without additional investments in expensive equipment.

Using another type of end effector, the ISAAC team hopes to study the joining of metal foil laminates using high-frequency ultrasonic sound waves to create a fusion bond between layers. “One of the reasons we are very interested in that is that we can add reinforcing fibers into the materials to make metal matrix composite bands,” says Stewart. “That segues into making very large, metal matrix composites.”

The ISAAC team is unlikely to run out of research possibilities. At last count the team had a portfolio of more than two dozen possible and captured projects involving everything from flex walls for cryogenic wind tunnels to alternate material systems for fiber placement for space instruments’ chassis backbones.

Accelerating the Path to Industry

ISAAC is currently focused on two NASA projects. One is the Composites for Exploration Upper Stage (CEUS) project. “The intent of this project is for NASA as a whole to get smarter and more experienced with designing flight-rated composite parts,” says Wu. NASA will design, build, analyze and test a large composite skirt (a 5-foot high by 27.4-foot-diameter cylinder) for a proposed future upper-stage vehicle. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is the project manager, with the Langley and ISAAC teams working on producing and analyzing the skirt joints.

ISAAC’s other assignment is the Advanced Composites Project, designed to accelerate the certification of new composite materials for use in real-world applications. The current length of the certification process makes it difficult for industry to employ the latest composite technology in new products. Boeing, for example, used the same type of composite in its 787 aircraft as it did in its 777 because getting a new material approved could have taken decades and millions of dollars.

“When you do AFP, you get gaps, laps and process-induced anomalies that need to be understood and better characterized,” says Wu. “So we will be using our machine to generate these kinds of imperfections and anomalies that are a normal part of the process and study their effect on part quality and structural performance.”