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How to convert a used robot into an AFP system

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Why it's possible now?

Automated composites manufacturing has been regarded as reserved only for the large industrial players due to the high cost of purchase, expensive operation, and the need for experts to run these machines. As explained by Writes' Law, every doubling in the number of robotic arms produced has lead to a constant decrease in prices, making it possible to bring automation to every manufacturing shop floor. Nowadays, manufacturers of all sizes have industrial robots performing repetitive tasks, e.g. pick-and-place, polishing, trimming, painting, machine tending, etc. However, despite their widespread presence in manufacturing plants, it has not been possible to covert any of these existing robots to perform composites layup. That is until plug-n-place technology was brought to the market by Addcomposites.

In this article, the economics and other benefits of converting existing robots into automating composites layup are discussed and how-to steps for doing so are provided.

How does the cost compare to current processes?

A compelling business case must be presented in order to incorporate a new process. Comparing the costs of the current manufacturing process to the proposed solution will definitively show whether or not the investment should be made.

Cost of manual composites layup

First, we need to understand the cost of lamination today. Composites manufacturing consists of many steps, but one of the most critical processes is laying down the prepreg material. Skilled composites laminator is priced around $15/hr and is:

  • Capable of putting ~1.1 Kg/hr of thermoset prepreg material

    • Over two shifts for a month, the output would be 352 kg and cost $4800.

  • Capable of placing ~2kg/hr of dry material

    • Over two shifts for a month, the output would be 640 kg and cost the same $4800.

  • Not capable of placing thermoplastic prepreg

Other than the cost involved and limitations of material being placed, the manual layup suffers from lower repeatability, added quality costs, higher scrape rate, more waste, etc.

Next, we evaluate the economics of monthly rental AFP and probable upsides.

Economics of automating composites layup

The monthly rented AFP working over two shifts with an operator can help generate the manual laminator savings of $12,000-$15,000 per month when placing 150 GSM prepreg tapes. This is not a tool to replace the existing laminator but to empower the laminator to become 7x-10x more productive and help create manufacturing processes that:

  • Produce consistent quality parts with very high process repeatability

  • Digitized production and automated data collection

  • Scalable production to any part of the world using global robot brands

  • Can rapidly respond to changing production requirements

  • Help build process knowledge within the machine

  • Reduce processing waste

How to convert an existing robot into an AFP

Any robot is capable of becoming an automated composite manufacturing system by connecting the plug-n-place™ AFP tool. To get started, simply find an idle robot or purchase/rent a used one for the project duration.

Plug-n-Place AFP
Plug-n-Place AFP

Identifying the robot's capability

As is the case for all industrial applications, the tool used should be accurate and repeatable to the requirement of the manufacturing. Similarly, for composites manufacturing, the placement accuracy of the robot decides the composites' placement accuracy. Commonly available industrial robots can be calibrated to achieve a 0.4 mm path-following accuracy and a repeatability of 0.05 mm. Additionally, the industrial robot chosen for the AFP process should be capable of supporting a load of 15-20kg payload. Higher robot payload adds to additional freedom i.e. higher consolidation force, high-speed runs, robot flexibility, etc.

Preparing the facility

Not much needs to be changed in the robot except for making sure there is a filtered pressured airline of 6+ bars available to be utilized for the AFP tool's operation. For high-powered heaters for thermoplastics, it is required to have a 3-phase voltage supply of 32 and/or 64 amps available.

Configuring and ordering a monthly rental of the AFP tool

The key detail before ordering your AFP tool is to know what type of material needs to be placed. For thermoset material, the configuration of the tool would involve an IR heater, whereas for the thermoplastic placement a high-power heating technology like humm3 is required. The configuration of the tool can be determined by filling this google form. Once the form is filled out a quote is issued to place the order.

Setting up the AFP tool

The AFP tool can be installed virtually, with a self-help guide and in the virtual presence of Addcomposites experts. Overall setting up a tool should take a day of work, including mounting the tool, controller, and connecting cables. All the other necessary software and firmware are sent and installed in advance including multiple software training sessions on AddPath.

Running the first layup

As the AFP tool is installed, the robot is ready to start performing layups. The rental system comes with test material to run the initial layups. The layup for 3D shapes requires an existing mold, which can be 3D printed as well if not already in place. The best productivity from the AFP system is obtained by using the widest possible tape width for the given shape. The best way to evaluate the tape width for a given shape is by obtaining a simulation via AddPath.

A Case Study

An existing robot that was available at the facility was turned into an AFP production cell in a matter of 2-day transformation. Demonstrating layup capabilities for thermoset, dry fiber, and thermoplastics using the humm3 heating technology.

Convert your robot into an AFP

Do you have a KUKA, ABB, or FANUC robot that you would like to convert into an AFP for automating your layup needs? Fill out the form, get a quote, and get started.

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