Tech Briefs

Solid Freeform Fabrication of Composite-Material Objects

Parts specified by CAD data files could be fabricated as needed.

Composite solid freeform fabrication (C-SFF) or composite layer manufacturing (CLM) is an automated process in which an advanced composite material (a matrix reinforced with continuous fibers) is formed into a freestanding, possibly complex, three-dimensional object. In CLM, there is no need for molds, dies, or other expensive tooling, and there is usually no need for machining to ensure that the object is formed to the desired net size and shape.

CLM is a variant of extrusion-type rapid prototyping, in which a model or prototype of a solid object is built up by controlled extrusion of a polymeric or other material through an orifice that is translated to form patterned layers. The second layer is deposited on top of the first layer, the third layer is deposited on top of the second layer, and so forth, until the stack of layers reaches the desired final thickness and shape.

The elements of CLM include (1) preparing a matrix resin in a form in which it will solidify subsequently, (2) mixing the fibers and matrix material to form a continuous pre-impregnated tow (also called “towpreg”), and (3) dispensing the pre-impregnated tow from a nozzle onto a base while moving the nozzle to form the dispensed material into a patterned layer of controlled thickness. When the material deposited into a given layer has solidified, the material for the next layer is deposited and patterned similarly, and so forth, until the desired overall object has been built up as a stack of patterned layers. Preferably, the deposition apparatus is controlled by a computer-aided design (CAD) system. The basic CLM concept can be adapted to the fabrication of parts from a variety of matrix materials.
It is conceivable that a CLM apparatus could be placed at a remote location on Earth or in outer space where (1) spare parts are expected to be needed but (2) it would be uneconomical or impractical to store a full inventory of spare parts. A wide variety of towpregs could be prepared and stored on spools until needed. Long-shelf-life towpreg materials suitable for such use could include thermoplastic- coated carbon fibers and metal-coated SiC fibers. When a spare part was needed, the part could be fabricated by CLM under control by a CAD data file; thus, the part could be built automatically, at the scene, within hours or minutes.

This work was done by C. Jeff Wang and Jason Yang of Nanotek Instruments, Inc., and Bor Z. Jang of Auburn University for Johnson Space Center. In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:
Nanotek Instruments, Inc.
1915 First Ave.
Opelika, AL 36801
Refer to MSC-22993, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.