Custom Machines Advance Composite Manufacturing
- Saturday, 01 January 2011
While the tape laydown head currently features as part of an Accudyne-built machine at Langley, the company’s SBIR work has yielded technology for its commercial products, as well. Autoclave-cured thermoset materials still dominate composites manufacturing, explains John Melilli, Accudyne’s vice president of sales and marketing, and the company’s commercially available deposition heads for thermoset systems employ technology created for the SBIR-developed laydown head. Through another NASA SBIR, Accudyne also developed nanoparticle technology that, when mixed with a composite resin, helps the material develop improved properties—allowing high-quality parts to be made more quickly at lower cost, Melilli says. The company has patented the innovation and expects significant commercial interest.
Accudyne is currently working with major aerospace companies to develop machines for manufacturing composite rocket parts and components for helicopter rotors. The company’s automated solutions enable the production of higher quality parts at lower costs, while not threatening the jobs of the workers who previously fabricated the composite parts by hand.
“This is not about replacing people with machines,” Melilli says. “The people end up working with the machines, and the rate of production goes up.”
The kind of support that NASA has provided to composite manufacturing innovators like Accudyne has been essential to the continued development of the entire industry, Melilli notes. “The reality is that the work, connections, and references that NASA has continued to provide have been crucial to keeping this technology going.”
In a broader sense, he says, “NASA’s support of manufacturing in general is important to maintaining and advancing the Nation’s technological capabilities. Manufacturing is so important because you end up applying all of the process lessons you have learned over time. The United States runs the risk of falling behind in developing new processes and manufacturing technologies if, as is the current trend, manufacturing continues to migrate to foreign countries. We end up being ‘distributors’ as opposed to ‘manufacturers.’ The skills are different and the compensation is as well.”
This learning process is still very much underway at Langley, where the Accudyne-built machine is available for researchers and partners in private industry to use.
“That machine is going to be indispensable in helping to develop a database of processes and parts made from thermoplastics,” Melilli says. In the meantime, Accudyne is currently engaged in a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) project with Langley and the University of Delaware to improve the properties of parts made with the SBIR-derived tape laydown head.
The results indicate a bright future for out-of-autoclave thermoplastics manufacturing. Jensen notes that these parts initially exhibited performance properties 70–80 percent of those made using an autoclave. Through the STTR partnership, those results are now around 90–95 percent.