Robotics In Composites Manufacturing
Industries from aerospace to transportation and construction to sports equipment are turning to composite materials. Demand is rising, and advanced robotic solutions can help. The variation inherent in composite manufacturing processes is challenging dedicated tooling and automation, but is no match for industrial robot flexibility. Resins and solvents used in composite bonding make for an unhealthy work environment for humans, but robots don't care. Putting robots to work with fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) materials increases capacity while protecting workers from jobs that are dirty and dangerous. Acieta understands the challenges created by composite parts manufacturing and has the skills and experience to design and implement customized, cost-effective robotic solutions.
Forming and Processing
Composite materials comprise fiber reinforcement in a binder or matrix, shaped and cured in a mold. A six-axis robot can spray gel coating or resin more consistently than is possible by hand, creating uniform products and reducing overspray waste. With appropriate end-effectors (usually needlelike systems), robots can handle fabric sheets, lifting and placing them into a mold. Cured product can be unloaded by a robot and placed on racks or hooks for transport to finishing, with vision guidance helping address dimensional differences between parts.
Finishing operations needed after composite bonding can include grinding, routing and sanding, which produce dust that forces workers to wear extensive personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition, manual processing is difficult and slow. Robotic finishing can achieve higher throughput than human workers while protecting people from exposure and saving the expense of protective equipment.
Composite materials are often abrasive and difficult to machine. Force-sensing technology lets a robot detect changes in the processes that signify tool wear or part variation, and then adapt accordingly. Vision and laser measurement systems locate surfaces in two or three dimensions and supply offsets that let the robot controller adjust the path as needed.
Drilling, a common operation in composite manufacturing, puts in holes needed for rivets, screws and other attachments. Accuracy and repeatability are critical to ensure assemblies go together easily, so vision systems are used to locate features in space. With this vision established, the robot controller modifies tool coordinates to ensure each hole goes exactly where it's needed, and force sensing identifies when the drill needs replacing.
Robotic Painting and Finishing
Robots are ideal for spraying paints, varnishes and other coatings. Able to follow complex three-dimensional paths, they keep the spray head at the optimal distance and orientation needed to ensure uniform coverage and part-to-part consistency. Taking the human painter away from the operation improves cleanliness — resulting in higher-quality finishes—while also avoiding solvent hazards.
Low Volumes, High Variety
Implementing dedicated hard automation in a low-volume, high-variety composite manufacturing environment is often prohibitively expensive. Inherently flexible, robots provide a cost-effective alternative. By simply loading a new program, a robot can switch between molds, adapting to changes in feature location or changing a spray. Changeovers between parts take just seconds, maximizing output and ROI. In addition, when product lines change, a robot is easily reconfigured for a new task, which avoids the financial risk involved in purchasing hard automation equipment.
Modern robots are extremely reliable with MTBF numbers in the thousands of hours. They're easier to use than ever, too. Offline programming minimizes downtime while a cell is configured for a new product, and most technicians can perform program “touchup” after just a few hours training. At Acieta, we make a point of supporting new users with education and training so they get the best from their investment.
A robot never tires or takes breaks, both of which are issues for humans working with composite materials. Production rates are more consistent and every available second is utilized, so capacity increases. Consistency improves product quality, with each part produced identical to the one before, a reduction in waste.
Composite bonding and finishing processes are inevitably repetitive, dull and potentially hazardous. Implementing robotic systems for these operations protects workers while also saving the ongoing expense of extensive PPE.
Labor shortages challenge many manufacturers today, especially those with challenging working environments that are dusty, dirty and unpleasant. Using robots to supplement the existing workforce lets a business accept more orders without being limited by worker availability.
The Composite Materials Robotic Systems Company
Implementing robotics in composite bonding and manufacturing processes demands extensive automation experience and an understanding of the unique issues and challenges involved. Acieta is very familiar with composite manufacturing processes and, by partnering with FANUC, has access to an impressive family of advanced robots. Working together, we've completed successful robot applications across many industries.
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