According to Airborne’s business development manager, Jamie Snudden, the ethos surrounding automation must change - if manufacturing is going to meet future sustainability demands.
Transport is changing dramatically. Before the pandemic, signs of a new transport revolution were just starting to be seen, but the combination of a recent shift away from traditional working practices and a focus on sustainability, such as through the COP26 climate conference has given fuel to this revolution.
All transport sectors have been in the spotlight, from road transport, through shipping to aerospace, for their contribution to climate change, and efforts are being made to reduce their emissions. In addition to the traditional modes of transport, new platforms are being seen that threaten to disrupt the industry and significantly reduce the use of fossil fuel burning vehicles whilst having the benefits of being more convenient and in turn reducing congestion in our cities.
These include platforms such as e-scooters and e-bikes, last mile delivery vehicles and advanced air mobility. Agile start-ups are taking advantage of the traditional and emerging sectors and are overtaking the incumbent OEMs, such as Tesla in the automotive sector. A further benefit that these start-ups have is that they are not bound by traditional supply chain thinking. Traditional global supply chains that see components and completed vehicles shipped around the world are heavily polluting, whereas a more distributed, localised supply chain approach with manufacturing facilities situated close to key markets will drastically reduce the need to transport parts and assemblies around the world.
The weight is over
A common theme running across new and traditional transport sectors is the need to have a lightweight structure to mitigate the increased weight of electric or hydrogen propulsion systems. No wonder therefore that composite materials are in high demand. To meet this demand, access economies of scale and enable more localised supply chains, there must also be a revolution in composites manufacturing technology.
For Advanced Air Mobility, encompassing flying vehicles from drones, electric vertical take-off and regional conventional take-off electric aircraft, aerospace quality must still be assured, whilst also manufacturing components more akin to those seen in automotive in terms of geometrical complexity, size and in some cases rate. For micro-mobility and last-mile delivery, recyclable thermoplastic composites and production rates are key, combined with smaller, more complex geometries.
Previously, composites manufacturing has either been fully manual, where if demand increases, more operators are required, or automated to improve reliability or production rates. In the aerospace sector, automation has been used effectively on large parts using ATL or AFP, such as for fuselage sections or wing covers. This reduces cost through removing labour, but to increase rates, generally more machines are required.
In the automotive sector on the other hand, to access economies of scale for composites, vast production facilities with hundreds of robots are installed that support production either globally or at least trans-continentally. These robots are highly efficient at doing one process repeatedly for high production rates, but would need to be reprogrammed to perform a different task. Additionally, the parts produced then need to be shipped around the world to the next stage of production or to the markets they serve.
Change in mindset
For composites manufacturers to be in a position to offer the materials to both new and existing transport sectors at a competitive cost, whilst also reducing environmental impact versus both traditional materials and the current composites status quo, a new, distributed manufacturing approach is required.
To enable this approach, the ethos surrounding automation must change. Instead of the traditional approach of automated systems requiring significant investment and production rates to perform a single task repeatedly, digital solutions are required. If flexible, autonomously reprogrammable manufacturing solutions were created that could leverage the economies of scale of traditional automation, whilst also accessing the economies of scope of being able to produce many different components using the same equipment at lower production volumes, automation will be available at a far lower investment level, and localised distributed manufacturing will be possible. This would lead to disruptive start-ups in the new and existing transport sectors being able scale up production at lower costs, whilst also leading to smaller factories based closer to their markets, shortening and reducing the emissions of supply chains.
This technology is now available. Industry 4.0 manufacturing solutions that apply a significantly greater level of data collection from the production process that allows for autonomous quality control and process adjustment, combined with software that automatically reprogrammes the robotic systems enable production of multiple components using the same system at aerospace quality.
Automate to innovate
One example is Airborne’s automated preforming system that can be used with prepregs, dry fabrics and thermoplastic materials. The system integrates ply cutters with kitting technology and large pick and place end effectors. Vision systems autonomously adjust the programming of the robot arm to allow for any deviation from nominal of the ply position on the end effector that allows for precise placement of plies. Spot welding equipment embedded within the end effector stabilises plies as they are stacked on top of each other to create a stable 2D preform that can then be moved safely onto the 3D forming stage.
Splitting out the 2D from the 3D forming processes helps to improve efficiency by freeing up 3D moulds and reduces scrappage by providing an opportunity for intermediate inspection. If plies need to be adjusted or if a new component is required, Airborne’s software allows input files to be adjusted before autonomously reprogramming the entire system in seconds, instead of requiring a team of automation engineers to do the same job. This means that using the same inputs that would be needed for a ply cutter now allows for fully-automated layup, whether it is for a batch of one or thousands.
Transport is undergoing a paradigm shift in attempting to become more sustainable whilst also providing greater levels of convenience. Composites can help to accelerate this transformation and create higher performing vehicles earlier.
To achieve this, however, the manufacturing industry must adopt new automation technology at the same rate of change, or face the risk of being side-lined for more accessible materials technologies. The adoption of this technology starts in parallel with the development of the products themselves.
By considering design and automated manufacturing processes concurrently, the manufacturing equipment developed will be more efficient and optimised to the application in question, and the designs will be more efficient to manufacture. With the rate of change being seen in the transport sector, minimising lead-times for ramping up production will not only give OEMs a strategic advantage, but will also allow for a more rapid cradle to grave decarbonisation of the transport industry. By concurrently developing automated production lines and the vehicles themselves, lead-times are compressed and ramp up can occur more rapidly.