Innovations of scale

CiMApril19Feature - sabic1
CiMApril19Feature - sabic1

Mike Richardson met with SABIC during the recent JEC World, Paris event to witness a major milestone in what the company claims is a trailblazing initiative to digitise and automate large-scale composites manufacturing.


SABIC celebrated a major milestone for its Digital Composites Manufacturing line at JEC World, Paris in March. The company - in collaboration with Airborne and powered by Siemens and KUKA technologies – says it has successfully completed the pilot phase of the world’s first automated digital system for rapid, large-scale laminate manufacturing using its UDMAX continuous fibre-reinforced thermoplastic composite tape.

SABIC and Airborne are beginning the transition to full-scale production, which is slated for the end of 2019. To preview this unique system, SABIC presented a 360° virtual reality experience called ‘Innovations of Scale’ on its JEC World stand. The new automated digital manufacturing system was built at Airborne’s facility in the Netherlands and is capable of producing four thermoplastic composite laminates every 60 seconds, totalling up to 1.5 million parts annually. Potential applications include cases and covers for consumer electronics, aircraft inserts, automotive components and sports goods.

SABIC believes that until now, the adoption of composites has been restricted by time-consuming, inefficient and expensive processes. But by focusing on new materials and manufacturing automation to overcome these hurdles, the industry can make tremendous strides, and it’s through the company’s collaboration with Airborne that the industrialisation of composites can be a reality.

The industrialisation of laminate production using SABIC’s new Digital Composite Manufacturing line will enable its customers in diverse industries to mass-produce high performance thermoplastic composite parts, gaining advantages of faster speed, higher efficiency and lower costs.

To allow JEC World visitors to experience, first-hand, the line’s automated conversion process, SABIC leveraged virtual reality technology to put visitors inside the manufacturing facility. The immersive experience, called ‘Innovations of Scale’ featured a 2m screen with touchscreen capabilities and Dolby Surround Sound. To learn more, visitors to the stand were able to interact with the display by touching 10 different points on the screen that represented different features of the new automated digital manufacturing system.

Harnessing digital technologies

The Digital Composites Manufacturing line uses cutting-edge digital technologies, including robotics, to enable mass-customisation of flat laminates while reducing cycle times and cost. The sophisticated, fully-digital system can run multiple laminate sizes simultaneously and adaptive process controls allow settings to be modified on the fly. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will be employed to further improve yield over time, maximise quality and repurpose irregular parts to minimise scrap.

To support and enhance these capabilities, SABIC says it will offer customers a range of services including simulation-based part and laminate design assistance and guidance on hybrid moulding processes in order to streamline the switch to composites. The company can customise its composite tapes and laminate products to meet customer requirements. Importantly, SABIC can leverage its wealth of experience in injection moulding to help customers mitigate warpage, a common issue, by making modifications to part design, materials selection, and processing.

Gino Francato, global business leader, advanced composites, SABIC

“Our theme is based on ‘innovations of scale’, because we want to bring composite materials from niche to mass production,” begins Gino Francato, global business leader, advanced composites, SABIC. “We believe that thermoplastic composites are the way forward; the reason being they can be processed faster compared to thermosets, and much easier to automate as well. Recyclability and sustainability are key elements here too.

“Ultimately, we wanted to automate the production of laminates, which is why we began our collaboration with Airborne. Airborne has been very successful in automating thermoplastic composite processing in the oil & gas industry and it knows composites very well indeed. In 2017 we gained a minority stake in Airborne and we started the process of taking a very simple shape in the form of manufacturing computer notebook covers.”

It’s big, it’s clever

Possessing the longest job title I’ve ever seen, Recep Yaldiz, staff scientist, application development programme manager Airborne Manufacturing Automation Specialties, Composites Europe, (now breathe!) enters the conversation. He’s tasked with managing the digital composites manufacturing line, which is now up and running at Airborne in The Netherlands. He leads me into SABIC’s top secret virtual reality room on the stand to share confidential information on the workings behind the company’s digital composites manufacturing line.

“This is the real thing,” he exclaims. “The production process begins with two rolls of UD tape in a continuous high-speed process that never stops, and when one roll has run out of tape, the other roll kicks in to keep the process going. The idea here is to make hundreds and thousands of laminates, so the maximum capacity could be 1.5 million laminates per year, with four laminates produced every minute. It’s fully-automated and there is no manual intervention needed; it’s all performed using robotic automation to check quality control.”

Indeed, the manufacturing equipment is clearly not something you can simply buy off-the-shelf and involves a massive customised solution that is more akin to something you’ve probably already seen in one of The Terminator movies!

In terms of the production process itself, it begins when the UD tapes are sliced, inspected for size, and then allocated to trays in a 0-90° direction to perform the desired laminate layup. Additional feeders can be added that include different layup orientations. Once the layup is complete, the tray moves to a ‘welding’ station. A press system with fully-automated product transfer and handling of press plates is loaded and unloaded by robots and can consolidate four laminates in a one-minute cycle. The back-end of the system automatically separates the laminates from the press plates and trims and inspects the dimensions for any flatness and surface defects. The ‘qualified’ laminates are then separated from the rejected ones and loaded into a designated container for shipping.

“There’s an opportunity here to position different fabric layers on top of one another, which we term ‘honest design’ and describes the aesthetics of showing the fibres and resins without over-painting to provide an interesting range of decorative designs,” states Francato. “Aesthetics are becoming increasingly important for a number of industries and customers because by eliminating the paint process, we avoid all the problems associated with harmful solvents.”

Collaborate to innovate

The SABIC production line is part of a collaboration with Airborne, powered by Siemens and KUKA technologies

As a new member of CompositesNL, SABIC has now become part of an industry association that represents the interests of organisations in The Netherlands involved in the development, manufacture, maintenance and reuse of products using composite technology. SABIC says its membership to CompositesNL will help further promote its collaboration with both SMEs and large companies in advancing the technology and adoption of composites.

“We believe in thermoplastic composites and we are delivering on our promises,” Francato concludes. “And through our aesthetic options, we intend to reveal more as our understanding of how we can work in this market growth. Along with our new relationship with CompositesNL, it’s all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration!”



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