Composites manufacturers are accustomed to dealing with ongoing improvements in equipment, materials and processes that can impact their operations. But they may not be ready for Industry 4.0. Also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 promises an era of unprecedented technological innovation that will transform manufacturing as we know it.

“Industry 4.0 is both a set of processes and the technology that enables digital collaboration across the business,” explains Brian Meeker, principal, Deloitte Consulting. “It is the next generation of manufacturing across all industry sectors and encompasses a broad spectrum of digital capabilities.”

Those capabilities include sensors that capture and transmit information, the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and more. Working together, these digital technologies enable companies to automate more equipment and processes, and to collect, analyze and model data to make better business decisions.

“The goal is to create smart factories that are able to produce more parts when they’re needed and improve time to market without compromising the quality of the product,” says Amir Ben-Assa, chief marketing officer for Plataine, which specializes in industrial IoT software.

First Steps

The new Digital Composites Manufacturing Line (DCML), developed and now being pilot tested by SABIC and Airborne, demonstrates the transformative nature of Industry 4.0. The DCML is a fully-automated manufacturing system that can mass produce lightweight, high modulus and low-warpage laminates, custom-engineered for the desired thickness, dimensions and performance. It takes the DCML just 60 seconds to manufacture four thermoplastic composite laminates.

The DCML uses SABIC’s continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastic tapes with high-pressure, fiber impregnation technology HPFIT. (For the current product being made on the DCML, notebook covers, the tape is made of carbon fiber and polycarbonate resin.)

“We need two tapes with two different widths; one for the zero direction, the other for the 90-degree direction,” explains Gino Francato, SABIC’s global business leader for advanced composites. Two tape feeders lay tapes on trays, which move in a circle from the first feeder to the second and back again to the first until they have the desired number of layers.

The trays then move to the next station, where the layers are tack-welded together. A robot transfers four tack-welded stacks to the consolidation area, where it takes 60 seconds of heat and pressure to make a fully-consolidated laminate. After trimming and packaging, the boxes containing the laminates are picked up by a worker for storage.