Robots are becoming increasingly common in aircraft production, whether it is laying carbon fiber on tools or drilling and riveting fuselages. But they tend to be solitary machines, operating at a safe distance from humans and other robots.
As airliners with predominantly composite airframes move toward high rates of production, manufacturers and suppliers face the challenge of driving costs down while pushing rates up. The key lies in increasing the speed with which carbon fiber can be deposited on mold tools. The enabler is automation, and greater use of robots.
German aerospace center DLR is beginning tests of a composites manufacturing system designed to enable multiple industrial robots to work together to lay up carbon-fiber components 10 times faster than today's single-head machines. DLR's Center for Lightweight Production Technology (ZLP) in Stade is conducting the trial.
DLR ZLP works closely with Airbus Germany's Stade plant, which produces carbon-fiber vertical tails for all the company's aircraft, flaps for the A320, pressure bulkheads for the A380 and fuselage shells and wing covers, or skins, for the new A350.
The cooperating-robot manufacturing system, which DLR calls the GroFi platform, is being developed under a three-year research program launched in June 2010 and funded by the federal government and state of Lower Saxony. “Our focus is wing covers for the next generation of A320NEO, which could use carbon fiber,” says Felix Kruse, head of DLR ZLP.
“We are developing technology for production at a very high rate,” he says. The goal is to increase dramatically the rate at which carbon fiber can be deposited on tools using automated tape laying or fiber placement. “A classic gantry system with a single head can average 15-20 kilograms [33-44 lb.] per hour. Our goal is 150-200 kilograms per hour.”
In the GroFi platform, multiple industrial robots are mounted so they can move on rails around a production loop and a maintenance loop. In the production area, the double-sided, multi-cavity tool is mounted vertically, allowing up to four robots to work together on each side with a combination of tape-laying and fiber-placement heads.