Coping with composites

6 mins read

With the arrival of its robot-based tape/tow-placement unit, the AMRC Composites Centre with Boeing is fully equipped to support both commercial and research requirements, as Andrew Allcock reports

Open for nearly one year, operational since the end of July last year and officially opened on 6 November 2008, the arrival of the robot-based automated tape/fibre placement (ATP/AFP) robot at the 15,000 sq ft AMRC with Boeing Composites Centre (previously CAMTeC - Composites and Advanced Materials and Technology Centre with Boeing), sees the final piece of the jigsaw in place (Click for box item). The £860,000, Kawasaki robot-based, Automated Dynamics-supplied system (, with its 12-tow placement head, offers the most advanced, indeed a claimed unique, capability in the UK, according to the Centre's business unit manager, Richard Scaife. It is the first system of this type that the American composites machine specialist has supplied to feature such a head, he says. A tow is the industry name for a narrow tape of fibre-reinforced composite material, although just where a tape becomes a tow is not always clear, Mr Scaife offers. The tow width for this head is 1/8 in and the type of material matrix laid is thermoset. There are two other heads, one for thermosets – a 3 in wide tape unit – and another for single ¼ and 1/2 in wide thermoplastic tow. TWELVE AT A TIME The 12-tow head, which literally lays up to 12 tows of material simultaneously, each under independent control, allows for the fast lay-up of parts having, for example, a circular or oval aperture within them (aircraft fuselage windows, for example); those that have complex surface forms and where wider tape could not track the contours, such as wing spars with various details included (the first project, in fact); and the head also allows tows to be laid in arcs. The system, which has a capacity of 2.75 m long by 1 m diameter, has a front-to-back reach of 1.4 m and can handle up to 2.2 tonnes. Operational since the end of January, as at Machinery's February visit it was undergoing 'shake-down' trials, using the 3 in single-tape head, and was laying down thermoset material around a former. The material is laid under pressure, exerted via an application wheel, and is cured in an autoclave at elevated temperature and pressure. Thermoplastics, by comparison, are cured via a hot air blast of some 400 °C at point of contact just after they have been laid down. The AMRC Composites Centre is located on the Advanced Manufacturing Park, opposite the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) main building. The Composites Centre, then CAMTeC, began with the winning, in mid-2006, of a bid by the University of Sheffield and Boeing to establish such an activity within the AMRC, itself a joint venture between the same two parties, but now supported by numerous other partners. It is an integral part of the National Composites Network (See box), and regionally will give due consideration to Yorkshire's Regional Economic Strategy of concentrating upon the Advanced Engineering and Materials initiative. It will be able to call on personnel located within the AMRC, building multi-disciplinary teams as required, Mr Scaife adds. The Composites Centre itself boasts 12 full-time personnel, including one apprentice – three have been trained to program and run the new ATP/AFP machine. Research projects aside, the Centre acts a consultancy to businesses both regionally and nationally, although clearly, since it has drawn support from regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, it has certain deliverables in the local region, based around job creation, so companies within the region are able to benefit from subsidised consultancy, for example. As Mr Scaife underlines, the Centre receives visitors on a daily basis. AUTOMATED MANUFACTURE As might be understood from the installation of the ATP/AFP, a main push for the Centre is automated manufacture and, in particular, flexible manufacture of low-volume high-value composite components. In addition to automated manufacture, the other focus is on application, use and manufacture of mixed composites – metal plus composites. As for the breakdown between research and company project work, Mr Scaife offers that: "Some 60 per cent of our work is research programme-based at the moment. This takes in both UK and EU research programmes. The remainder is partner project work, not all the details of which can be made public." That said, even the work with individual companies is often supported by regional grants and similar resources, and the Centre becomes involved in the grant application process. A project about which details can be shared concerns the Centre's work with local company Bromley Technologies. Headed up by Britain's world champion bob skeleton competitor Kristan Bromley (see box), the company's focus is the development of high performance sports products and technologies. The Centre is working with his company in the development of new wintersport products, details of which are secret at this time, specifically manufacturing the tools for composite lay-up, using the Centre's CMS Ares 4818 5-axis machining centre, operational since July last year and programmed via Delcam's PowerMILL software (Delcam is an AMRC Tier 2 partner). The Centre has also manufactured tooling on the CMS machine in support of the UK's Integrated Wing project (see box); in this case the tools were for undercarriage components. Such tools are either aluminium or 'tooling board'. The recently arrived robot-based ATP/AFP will be used on the Next Generation Composite Wing project (see box, below), for which the Composites Centre is a sub-contractor on one of the work packages. This project will tie up this piece of equipment for approximately half of the time during the next six months in the manufacture of a scale model, demonstrator wing spar, Mr Scaife advises. The Centre is also involved currently on bids to secure work within the UK Technology Strategy Board's High Value Manufacturing research programme. Moving outside of the UK, the Centre is also involved in the EU research programme COMETA. Led by Italy's Fidia, it is concerned with the application of composites in machine tools. The Centre is bidding for involvement in other European research initiatives, too. As the business unit manager explains, the Centre operates across a number of sectors, taking in a wide breadth of activities, and both develops new techniques and approaches, as well as applying existing knowledge. "Much of our work is project based and we are asked for different things at different times – it is very random. It can be aircraft, sporting goods, small motors, offshore work, pressure systems – the range has been quite startling; all demanding different knowledge, rules and applications. But we can assemble cross-functional teams, using personnel from other areas of the AMRC." As part of its National Composites Network remit, the Centre shares its knowledge through events - currently anticipated to be held quarterly – with the first one scheduled for June at the AMRC. This event is, in fact, to be rolled out under the AMRC's Advanced Manufacturing Forum (AMF) umbrella in June – event details are not yet available. As the use of composite materials gathers pace, the AMRC Composites Centre with Boeing is clearly going to be a significant player. Box item Well equipped facility In addition to the robot-based ATP/AFP system and the CMS 5-axis machining centre, the AMRC Composites Centre with Boeing also has a cleanroom for the laying up of parts up to 5 m in length – a complete wing flap, in fact, which was the intention when specifying room size. The cleanroom is also home to an automated composites material cutting machine. Outside the cleanroom, there are two autoclaves, the largest having a chamber of 3 m diameter by 5 m, a maximum temperature of 200 °C and 10 bar pressure; the other a 1 m diameter by 2 m chamber and able to reach 400 °C and 20 bar pressure. The former is for thermosets, the latter for thermoplastics. There is also an oven of 3 m3 that can reach 240 °C. The Centre also houses a 10 litre capacity Resin Transfer Moulding system ( RTM ) which is being used to evaluate advanced fibre preforms. Finally, there is a range of test equipment taking in compression and tension units up to 2,000 kN, plus a number of compression/tension fatigue machines up to 100 kN. The Centre also designs and constructs purpose-specific testing equipment, the latter "probably the greatest area of interest from outside companies", Mr Scaife comments. Box item The National Composites Network The National Composites Network is a Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), jointly funded by government and industry, that embraces the entire UK Composites industry and its supply chain. Officially launched on 15 July 2004, it drew £30 million of funding for an initial 5-year period. Machinery has learned that this year, the NCN will become part of the Materials KTN, which is funded by the Technology Strategy Board. NCN is now in discussion with its funders about a programme for the next two years, we were told. The NCN, currently managed by TWI, based in Abington, Oxon, boasts a number of Regional Centres of Excellence where companies can obtain support and advice. These are: Airbus – Composite Structures Development Centre, Filton; GKN Aerospace – Composites Research Centre, Isle of Wight; NDT Validation Centre, Port Talbot, Wales; Northwest Composites Centre – a joint venture between the universities of Bolton, Lancaster, Liverpool and Manchester; and the University of Sheffield AMRC with Boeing Composite Centre. Box item Champion development Britain's Kristan Bromley (left), who is working with the Composites Centre, made skeleton bob history in the 2007/8 season by completing a hat-trick of titles, the World Championships, the World Cup series and the European Championships. He also won the World Cup series in 2003/4 and the European Championships in the 2003/4 and 2004/5 season. A major part of his success lies in the 'Formula Ice 2010' initiative that Bromley Technologies Ltd is driving. It is the world's first Formula One style Winter Sport Team, and also supports Olympic Silver medallist Shelley Rudman and recently crowned women's World Bobsleigh Champion Nicola Minnicello. Visit Box item Playing its part in national projects Integrated Wing ATVP (Aerospace Technology Validation Programme) This is a UK national collaborative technology validation programme designed to pave the way for a 'step change' in wing technologies and configurations, addressing 'Sustainable Aviation' issues. Phase 1 (£38 million) runs from 2006 to 2009 and brings together 21 leading UK organisations. Visit: Next Generation Composite Wing Announced last year, the Next Generation Composite Wing (NGCW) project is funded to the tune of £103 million, drawn from government and business. The project's focus is to improve the future wing design processes and help to maximise the eco-efficiency of future aircraft designs. The three-year programme will bring together 17 leading British organisations, both industrial companies and research bodies. Article first published in Machinery April 2009