Mike Richardson meets with Airborne UK’s managing director, Joe Summers and engineering manager, Miroslav Stojkovic to learn more about how the company intends to help industry automate and digitalise composites component production.
It goes without saying that everyone connected with the composites manufacturing industry probably shares the same vision in making composites easier to use and more affordable. But in enabling the industry to become smart and connected, the ability to network equipment and effectively store manufacturing process data will be vital.
The traditional composite manufacturing process relies on a competent operator with plenty of experience. This approach does not enable easy knowledge transfer as the experienced operators possess tacit knowledge, i.e. the type of knowledge gained through experience by many iterations and trials without being ever formalised. So, scaling the production or transferring technology or knowledge to the new generations of engineers poses significant challenges. This way of manufacturing only enables the lower volume of parts, that would be relatively challenging to qualify and cost effective.
Last year, Airborne UK and the National Composites Centre (NCC) announced that they would be working together to develop Automated Fibre Placement (AFP) Data Warehouse Architecture, which involves the design of a system to collect and store data from an AFP machine.
Both partners define use cases by considering source and type of data from sensors. The challenge was to develop a data warehouse capable of providing insights through analytics to allow future optimisation. These first steps have provided the basis to connect automation with digitalisation and enable Industry 4.0 capability. Ultimately, it will demonstrate the potential of digitally-enabled manufacturing to produce parts more efficiently whilst maintaining the highest level of quality.
Founded in 1995, Airborne is among the technology leaders in advanced composites, focusing on the automation and digital manufacturing of composites. Airborne UK managing director, Joe Summers reckons that to enable the mass production of composites and make it affordable, we need to automate and industrialise to disrupt the value chain, so I begin by asking him exactly what Airborne’s vision entails.
“It’s driven by a burning desire to make composites more affordable and usable for the industry. Composite materials always provide a substitute for metal due to some performance advantage, but what limits its application more broadly is its cost delta to that of traditional metallics. There is the inherent cost per kilo issue, but on top of that is the transformational cost of turning ‘wet’ composites into cured composites. In the intrinsic variability of these materials, the lack of characterised, ‘known’ properties that composites have means that in addition to the inherent cost per kilo and the transformational cost, are the additional design costs involved in order to compensate for the statistical variability and uncertainties that come with composites.”
The drive to digitalise
The upshot of all this is what drives Airborne to create a technique and technology that makes it easier and cheaper to use composites, allowing them to be converted at a rate the market needs. The development of automation and digitalisation is not the primary goal in itself – they are simply solutions to the challenge of how industry makes these things cheaper and quicker. But isn’t automation too expensive and its long-term gains hard to predict?
“Airborne equips its clients with the tools to understand the proposition and value of the type of automation we are delivering, plus the benefits to correctly analyse the payback and value. We’ve got issues, such as Takt time, waste, scrap, the human labour you replace, the value of quality and the value of the operational certainty of the process that all need to be factored into the calculation as to whether a ‘machine’ will pay for itself over a particular period of time.
“Some clients don’t have the tools to perform this calculation. They might be able to do the rudimentary ‘this machine costs X’, but the benefits are far bigger than this simplistic calculation. Airborne offers consultancy tools that help clients assess, analyse and visualise: value stream mapping which can involve a graphical simulation or chart of movements to show the inefficiency of flow and process transfers in a factory. We can break this down into individual steps and define Takt cost, waste, scrap, etc. for each of these processes, and then show how a machine or a technique can make it better. This allows us to show the payback and value of automation.
“These are the first evaluation tools that help people look at automation, but we need to make automation easier to actually implement and remove the mystery. We talk about taking the ‘dark arts’ out of composites, but we also need to take the dark arts out of automation too.”
A gateway for parts
Last September, Airborne announced it had created the world’s first portal to design and print composite parts. The company says its web-based platform enables anyone to design composite parts and get direct feedback on performance and price, enabling them to optimise the design for their specific use-case and order the part. Airborne’s portal is a key building block in how it sees the digital future of composite manufacturing, and demonstrates how intuitive, easy and fast it will be to design and use composite products.
“Through using our portal, clients can benefit from automation without having to personally buy it,” explains Airborne UK’s engineering manager, Miroslav Stojkovic. “If you want a 2D tape-laid preform, order it through the Airborne portal and benefit from the economics of a tape-laid preform and all the quality controls. You no longer need to buy an ATL robot – it is manufacturing as a service which either removes the need to buy a robot or be a method of testing the process on the path towards internally justifying the purchase of one.
“The value of automation - although it seems apparent and obvious - is not obvious when companies ask you for help. I don’t think any proposal made to them would help them understand the true value of automation. The main question we’re trying to answer is what is the value proposition. This involves some in-depth analysis of the process and the proposal to have a change in the process that realises value in a different way.
“The manufacture of composite parts is typically performed by humans and is quite unreliable, whereas automation is the way forward to drive out uncertainty and unpredictability. If we use ‘intelligent’ automation then we need to collect data, so that we can learn about our process and understand what is really involved. This can help optimise design, the manufacturing process and get cheaper, faster and better. Manufacturing processes are becoming more ‘sensorised’ with increasingly more data available, but what do we do with all the data?
“We are on the journey of using data generated by sensors and storing it in a data warehouse, which is in effect a massive database collecting data from a variety of sources. All this data is stored and then presented in a user-friendly format. This takes us out of our comfort zone of making composite parts into the world of digital transformation. It’s vital that automation is brought into everyday use.”
According to Summers, the NCC sees Airborne as a pioneer in the field of automation which is complimentary to its own goals. However, the point he’s making is that you cannot just be a pioneer in digitalisation or automation – the real value is in understanding composites, automation and digitalisation.
“We need to bring all three of these subjects together to be able to provide assistance to any organisations in this field,” he concludes. “Whilst we’re looking to develop our capabilities and technologies collaboratively with the NCC, we need to sell our manufacturing cells too. Our NCC membership has a variety of benefits - one being that we gain access to the tier 1 and tier 2 members to promote our equipment, as well as having a facility where we can use their capability to enhance some of our other projects.
“We’re helping the NCC develop the methodology which can also be applied to any equipment. It’s not just a question of how to digitalise a package – we’re in the business of selling machine solutions. Whilst we are using the NCC’s strategic vision to help us with our technology, any digital development is happening in parallel with the sale of our hardware within which we can incorporate the knowledge we have gained through our partnership with the NCC.”