Automation Remains Elusive in Composite Fabrication

Have you heard of Industry 4.0? If so, you know that it is considered the fourth industrial revolution occurring on a global scale. Industry 4.0 combines automation, data, and the Internet of Things to improve manufacturing processes. As revolutionary as it is, Industry 4.0 has been slow to catch on in the composites industry due to the elusiveness of automation.

While it’s possible to automate basic processes, like winding carbon fiber threads around a mold to create tubing, more complex automation just doesn’t exist in the composite manufacturing and fabricating arena. For example, consider how a car manufacturer would fabricate a carbon fiber door panel.

Multiple layers of carbon fiber sheets have to be manually laid up in a mold before undergoing high-pressure heat treatment to cure the epoxy resin that holds everything together. The manual layout process is both labor-intensive and time-consuming. Along with the cost of the carbon fiber itself, the labor-intensive nature of fabrication is preventing certain industries from adopting composites on a large scale.

Looking for a Solution

Rock West Composites is a Salt Lake City, Utah company that specializes in composite materials. They work on mostly small-scale projects involving things like carbon fiber tubing and sheets. For them, automation is not a tremendous concern right now. Things are different for a Spanish company known as MTorres. They make manufacturing and fabricating machines for Boeing.

MTorres recently opened a brand-new facility in Everett, Washington for the sole purpose of serving Boeing with the state-of-the-art robots they use in their own manufacturing facilities. But even while they are producing those robots, a core group of MTorres workers are simultaneously working on an automation process for carbon fiber fuselages.

Though Boeing and other MTorres customers already use carbon fiber panels to create both fuselage sections and wings, the panels have to be used in concert with interior stiffeners, rib posts, and fasteners to hold everything together and ensure structural integrity. The goal is to come up with a one-piece fuselage that eliminates the need for any interior infrastructure.

MTorres believes they have the right solution. According to the Seattle Times, they have developed a process that utilizes multiple robots and advanced fabricating techniques to create a single, composite airplane fuselage completely free of any internal infrastructure or fasteners. They debuted their miracle fuselage at the Paris Air Show this past summer.

Proof of Concept Only

MTorres is quick to point out that what they have accomplished is strictly proof of concept. They have proven that a one-piece fuselage can be fabricated using automation. Now they have to fine-tune the process to make it viable for mass production. The company does not think they will have it nailed down by the time Boeing starts production on the 797, but they are confident they will eventually reach their goal.

They are so confident that they invested $17 million in their new Washington facilities. They say you have to spend money to make money, and that appears to be true in this case. MTorres has already landed new projects worth upwards of $30 million. They say they have another $10 million in the pipeline.

It has been fascinating to watch the evolution of the composites industry over the last decade. It will be equally fascinating to see where it goes in the next decade. Right now, it appears as though the two most significant developments in composites relate to automation and recycling. Automation appears to have taken a giant leap forward despite being so elusive for so long. Let’s hope the promise of automation is not too far off.

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