Fiber reinforced plastic, like carbon or glass fibers, are hyped to be the material of the future due to the high strength/weight ratio. Indeed, composites have big potential, as the material properties in many ways outperform traditional material like steel or aluminum. However, these composites have been around for quite a lot of years, yet they are still associated with premium products and huge price tags.
One might wonder why composites has not yet become a more mainstream material and what is needed to democratize composites?
The hassle of producing composites
Producing components from composites has for many years been a highly manual and labor-intensive job for skilled people. The common process from design to finished product is generally divided into four different aspects: design, layup, infusion and finishing.
Once the engineer has finished the design of the component, the next step is to cut plies from dry flat fiber and place them onto a mold with the desired shape. The layup complexity can vary depending on the design and fiber material, and often results in quality variance due to human factors. Once the layup is finished, the dry fibers are bagged and infused with resin, then cured and finished. For a more detailed description see our earlier blog on manufacturing Advanced Composites: Manufacturing
On paper, this might not seem like a complex process. However, the time consuming layup and required skills to ensure consistently is found to be too great of a cost for companies to adopt composites manufacturing.
So, the future might not be filled with composites or what? To answer that question, it is necessary to understand what the industry is currently moving towards.
Trends in the industry
For years the trend has been to outsource production to cheaper countries in order to cut costs. However, companies have recently started to pull production back in-house, called insourcing. Doing so in a cost-effective manner is possible due to the increasing popularity of automation. By automating processes companies are able to increase production rate, quality consistency, and reduce labor costs. Industry 4.0 is one of the big buzzwords at the moment, referring to the future of industry where robots are more connected and thus can optimize production through connectivity.
So how does this connect with composites manufacturing?
By automating the layup process, it is possible to convert the traditionally labor-intensive tasks to a cheaper and more cost-effective process. The common processes are called Automated Tape Laying (ATL) and Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) where a tool at the end of a robotic arm accurately places strips of composite tapes as desired. The automated layup is programmed offline in a software which imports the component design and the desired fiber layup. In the software it is possible to simulate the motions of the robot and the layup tool to avoid collisions or unwanted movements.
Through this the engineer is fully in charge of both design and production, and thus is able to ensure quality consistency.
Introducing AddPath by Addcomposites
At Addcomposites, we truly believe in composites as the material of the future, but also acknowledge the current issue of high costs. We believe composites will be the future material of choice through offering affordable automated manufacturing. This is why we have developed the affordable tape laying toolhead AFP-XS along with our layup software ADDpath.
Using ADDpath. the design engineer can now turn a CAD model into a fully planned and automated layup, in very few steps. The software allows for controlling parameters such as fiber orientation, allowed gaps, etc. along with the ability to add reinforced areas by suppressing specific passes. The software is not strictly designed for the AFP-XS toolhead. On the contrary, it has an open platform so that you can control toolheads designed in-house. Making ADDpath an independent software has been a goal from the beginning, as we want to help universities and research centers developing their own toolheads – after all we started out as a research project and know the complexity of the task.
Are you considering entering the industry of automated composites manufacturing and want to know more? We are more than happy to make a virtual presentation designed just for you! By providing us with a CAD model of your component, we can, without obligations, show you how easily you can automate your composites layup and discuss your possibilities. Reach out today to get started!