Kitting and beyond

Pilot Line cell at the NCC, Bristol
Pilot Line cell at the NCC, Bristol

Composites in Manufacturing discovers how Loop Technology continues to provide innovative and automated kitting solutions for its customers.

Loop Technology is an industrial automation and robotics specialist based in Dorchester, Dorset. This fast-growing team of talented engineers located just a few miles off the Jurassic Coast have been making waves in the advanced manufacturing and aerospace sector.

The innovation and tenacity Loop has demonstrated over the past 25 years has led to several big names taking notice and enlisting its expertise. The company recently announced its involvement in an £80 million Government initiative alongside industry giants Boeing, AMRC and Spirit AeroSystems. Loop’s engineering prowess extends across the entire lifecycle of preforming composite materials, having built end-to-end tools that provide next-level automation and accuracy to manufacturers. The company is also heavily involved in laser-cleaning with LoopCLEAN and the machining of cured materials with RoboMACH HA.

FibreROLL and storage
FibreROLL and storage

One stage of the composite preforming process that Loop has innovated around is kitting. Kitting is the sorting and sequencing of plies, effectively putting them into the right order and placing them into the correct pack. By automating this time-consuming organisational task, manufacturers can significantly reduce the time and labour costs that come with manually handling and sorting carbon fibre material for lay-up. A big factor behind kitting systems is material utilisation which refers to how much material from a roll is used in the component that is being made. Loop has created systems that optimise material utilisation of nested plies whilst sorting and sequencing at an exceptionally fast rate.

Pick and place

For the initial stage of the kitting process, Loop has created machines that expertly accomplish the task of picking and moving the carbon fibre sheets. FibreMOVE is a 2D composite ply pick and place gripper that leverages a configurable array of gripper modules. It has the capacity to shape itself into a wide range of ply patterns including that of rectangles, doors, and window frame panels. This flexibility is powered by software that reads CAD data and automatically generates an appropriate gripper configuration. It takes the ply shape data from a camera system or the cutting table controller to calculate an even distribution of grippers within the ply boundary. This allows for automated pick and place of complex 2D shapes that have been presented in random order and orientation. FibreMOVE is easily integrated so it is not a laborious task to mount it on a robot or gantry system.

Another option Loop provide is FibreROLL, a compact pick and place end effector. It can be used as a deposition system but in this context is applied to pick and load the plies onto interchangeable storage rollers. FibreROLL can transfer large plies up to 20m long with a smaller footprint than other automated systems. It can handle a wide range of materials, shapes, and sizes including high porosity materials such as woven composite plies. Moreover, the integrated vision systems that come with FibreROLL provide a high level of precision, accuracy, and verification in terms of manufacturing safety. It uses precision drive and pinch rollers to allow handling of a wide range of ply types and shapes. The actual ply pickup is initiated by high flow vacuum grippers embedded within the rollers.

Storage and packaging

Once the plies have been picked, it is a matter of storage and putting them into the right pack. The FibreSTORE solution refers to all the ply storage systems designed by Loop. One storage option, compatible with FibreMOVE, is to store the plies in Flat Ply Storage. A standard system of this kind would be a 20-drawer store with 2m x 1m kit placement area, though Loop can custom tailor it to suit. Each of these drawers can hold up to 20kg of material at 20mm thick. It comes with transport assistance and high contrast to assist the camera visioning. There is a safety interlock mechanism to allow only one drawer open at a time under manual operation and the guiding system ensures repeatable positioning to ± 1mm. In a fully automated scenario flat ply storage is made up of trolley and collator that act as a pair with the collator effectively operating as a docking station whilst a control system is responsible for opening the appropriate drawer according to the kit ID of the incoming ply.

Pilot Line FibreKIT drawers and FibreFORM
Pilot Line FibreKIT drawers and FibreFORM

Rolled ply storage is a different option and this is compatible with FibreROLL. Rolled Ply Storage works with widths between 1.3m to 5m and can be designed with an individual, self-aligning pinch arm for each roll. It is a compact design with minimal footprint that uses lift actuators driving individual roll storage to pick and place position, allowing for the roll to be stored closer together.

There is also the possibility of using a vertical storage shuttle which provides high-speed and high-density storage. This system can be built so that it can either be manually operated or fully automatic where a robot or gantry manipulates the plies. The shuttle is very configurable and its precise composition is driven by the end application.

Innovating beyond kitting

There are instances where other solutions and technology that Loop has created can be leveraged to carry out kitting. Loop’s flagship technology, FibreFORM, is a state-of-the-art 3D composite ply pick and place end effector that is world-leading in its capacity to shape and deposit composites at unrivalled rates (up to 200kg/hour). The FibreFORM was a part of the Pilot Line system Loop delivered to the National Composites Centre. This cell not only automates kitting, it shapes and places carbon fibre fabric with millimetric accuracy whilst drastically reducing the number of components (potentially from 100,000 down to 150) required in aircraft wing production. It consumes less energy and less space compared to traditional AFP processes meaning it is environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

Loop provides a range of products and systems that facilitate the kitting process, all with manufacturers in mind so they can achieve a superior level of efficiency and ultimately reduce time and cost. FibreKIT is Loop’s ‘go to’ solution for all things storage and kitting, but its team will go about designing from their range of products according to the needs of the client and the project. How a system comes together will depend on several factors including the type, ply shape, geometry, and porosity of the material. Whatever the challenge, whether it be kitting or beyond, Loop says it consistently demonstrates its ability to meet and overcome it.

Related Articles

The collision decision

Autodesk’s vice-president of simulation, Greg Fallon discusses how best to maintain best practice when it comes to Automated Fibre Placement simulation and collision avoidance detection.
7 years ago Features

Making it big in composites

Composite materials have become the mainstay of component manufacture in a variety of industries. However, the handling and processing of these materials can be a real challenge, as Ian Vallely discovers.
7 years ago Features

Automatic for the people

It’s show-time once again, as the latest edition of the Paris-based JEC World composites show gets ready to roll into town.
7 years ago Features
Most recent Articles

Login / Sign up