KUKA Systems (Sterling Heights, MI), in conjunction with Bombardier Aerospace, has devised an innovative robotic cell for laying up dry carbon fiber material as a result of a national research and development project.

Inspection of the positioning and tolerance of the plies. (Nick McCarthy DMPR)
The robotic automation solutions provider took part in the one-year i-Composites program run by the Technology Strategy Board. KUKA, together with other project partners Loop Technology and Güdel, formed part of a wider consortium looking at ways to develop affordable composites manufacturing technologies.

The robotic cell developed during the project focused on its potential use in future wing production and is currently in trials at Bombardier in Belfast, Ireland. It aims to process dry carbon fiber material more quickly and efficiently than the existing method.

Depending on the size and profile of the wing structure, up to 200 plies may need to be put in place, which can be time-consuming due to the material’s flexible nature and tricky application technique.

A Smart Cell

The gripper matrix picks up ply and transports it to the mold tool. (Nick McCarthy DMPR)
The robotic cell features a 12 × 1.5m gripper matrix, which comprises an array of vacuum suction cups. These pick up a flat ply and transport it in the gripper along a gantry system to the mold tool.

The gripper array then reconfigures to a contoured form before placing the ply accurately into the mold. Furthermore, the number of suction cups activated can be altered to suit different ply sizes. Once the laying-up operation is complete, a KUKA KR30 robot with twice the reach capabilities of a standard model, picks up an end effector equipped with a vision system and travels along a linear track to inspect multiple pre-programmed locations on the preform.

The camera checks the edges and weave angle to ensure the plies are positioned properly and within the correct tolerances. An alarm is triggered if an error is detected.

The robot then returns to the workstation to replace the end effector with a similar tool containing an induction iron. It is used to tack the plies together in preparation for the preform to be processed further.

“The cell was completed within the year and we are extremely pleased with its performance during this early development phase,” commented Gavin Campbell, director, design engineering and technology department, at Bombardier Aerospace in Belfast.

“With further development and trialling, we believe there is an opportunity for future application on aircraft wing programs. The technology may also be attractive to others working in the field of composites, such as the marine, automotive, and sustainable energy sectors,” he added.

Mark Schlanker, business manager at KUKA Systems, said the cell had also been designed to deliver more efficiency to the laying-up and tacking process, with the option to add more robots at a later date.

For more information on KUKA Systems’ robots and automation equipment, visit http://info.hotims.com/34461-321 .