AMRC took this research a step further by building a parallel kinematic robot out of carbon fiber. That’s resulted in a 75 percent weight savings, allowing operators to change direction more quickly and achieve faster machining. They can dismantle the machine, move it to a new location and put it back together in less than an hour. That’s a real advantage over traditional machining when it comes to big tasks like fitting airplane wings.

Materials Optimization

At its new research application center in Derbyshire, England, Solvay is taking a holistic approach to the challenges of automating composites manufacturing. “We work very closely with our customers to bring together the perspectives of the material, the design and the manufacturing process, with the view of developing and industrializing a solution that is really aimed around manufacturability as well as performance,” says Rob Blackburn, director of application engineering within Solvay’s composites materials business unit. Optimizing materials by making them more robust and compatible with automation will help ensure consistency and repeatability in the material/machine interface.

In its ACCOMPLICE project, Solvay demonstrated that it was possible for a robot to handle the cutting, picking, placing, curing and trimming of a composite component. “That was all done within four minutes; doing it manually, that component from start to finish – including its curing cycle – would probably take in excess of a day,” says Richard Hollis, applications technology engineer. Since that project, Solvay has further optimized the robot manufacture process, reducing takt time – the average time between the start of production of one unit to the start of the next unit – to around 150 seconds.

“With that project, we have been particularly successful in validating the art of the possible with automation and high-rate processing,” says Blackburn. Solvay works with its customers to transfer these technologies into actual component production facilities.

But Blackburn cautions that automation is only part of the solution. “There are cure times that need to be optimized as well, which is an area where we’re progressing quite significantly from our chemistry development standpoint,” he says.