“Everything you don’t understand reduces confidence in the process and in the part, and certification is essentially about confidence,” says Stewart. “We want to attack these areas that have not yet been addressed in a formal and structured manner to get that confidence level up to where we can decrease the certification timeline.”

Brian Stewart, ISAAC integration manager

Brian Stewart, ISAAC integration manager, stands next to the robot’s automated fiber placement end effector, which can carry up to 16 spools of ¼-inch wide tows of carbon fiber.

Another factor hampering the adoption of new composites is industry’s understandable reluctance to use revenue-generating production equipment for research purposes. “So what we see with ISAAC is an opportunity to vet some of these ideas in a research-oriented environment where the companies don’t have to take their equipment offline and they don’t have to interrupt their existing processes,” Stewart says. “Then they can infuse those ideas into their existing product lines – which is still a little risky – or better yet, be prepared when their next product comes down the line.”

As a national laboratory, NASA Langley is taking that low TRL (technology readiness level) R&D role and helping to move things along, Stewart adds. “Working with industry-scale equipment gives us a very good relationship with industry and with academia. Instead of living in a bubble, doing some research and then asking, ‘Can anybody use this new stuff?’ we are out there looking to work with people on problems that will have an impact downstream.”

The system is about as close as it gets to industry practice, adds Wu. “We can use it here as a research tool to mature our own work, to study it and shake out the bugs before we go to the industry and say, ‘Hey, we found this great idea, go put it on your production system.’”