Composite manufacturing: Closing the digital gap

As composite manufacturing has advanced over the years, it has experienced a striking imbalance in the maturity of digital technologies. Computers have performed design and engineering tasks for decades, while paper plybooks and travelers are still used in many shops to guide composites fabrication. Since our founding in 1988 (when we were called Assembly Guidance), Aligned Vision’s mission has been to develop technologies that help to close this digital gap. These advancements are really needed today to accelerate composite manufacturing without compromising quality. Let’s take a look at the gap, the technologies and the ways in which composites fabrication is advancing toward Industry 4.0 efficiencies.

The composite manufacturing digital gap

Composites fabricators in the aerospace industry have led the way in digital design tools, driving the development of computer-aided design (CAD) as well as the fabrication planning functionality of computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). Designers of composite aerospace parts, especially critical structural components, have for decades employed surface modeling capabilities, structural design and analysis, electronically accessible composite materials data, and automatic generation of numerical codes for manufacturing guidance.

But digital support for the actual fabrication of composite components has lagged way behind. It has been outpaced not only by composites digital design technology, but also by digital manufacturing technology for other materials and processes. The strange thing is, until recently this gap has been accepted as “best practice.” Two current trends in the composites industry make it more and more urgent to close the digital gap:

  1. New market opportunities are opening up in high-volume applications. Technologies initially developed to manufacture 12-14 widebody jet airliners per month must be advanced to handle 120-160 single-aisle aircraft, and soon, 400 air taxis (urban air mobility aircraft) per month.
  2. The value of more detailed documentation has become apparent as aging air fleets are assessed, maintained and refurbished to extend their service lives. Comprehensive electronic documentation of the fabrication of flight-critical composite components today will provide end users and maintenance, repair and overhaul businesses (MROs) valuable information throughout their long future service lives.

Digital technologies for composites fabrication

The digital revolution for composite manufacturing floors arguably began in 1987, when Aligned Vision founder Scott Blake introduced 3D laser projection to the industry. Laser projection links digital design and engineering data directly to the fabrication floor – a great start to narrowing the gap. Additional features developed over the years have nearly closed the gap completely for data delivery:

  • Automatic aiming multiplexes the field of each laser projector, enabling it to generate laser templates despite obstructions and shadows in the work area.
  • Transform-driven automatic focus increases the energy density and brightness of the laser beam without increasing overall energy output and shortening the service life of the laser.
  • A multitasking controller with a CAD-like user interface makes it easy for floor personnel to run laser templating sequences on multiple independent tools.
  • Process control software allows engineers to digitally create electronic bills of process (BOPs) and electronic work instructions (EWIs) instead of paper.
  • Full-featured touchscreen remote controls let multiple floor operators access and step through EWIs while remaining at the tool.
  • Kitting software enables the application of laser projection to cutter unloading, using data from nesting programs to direct operators through the kitting sequence.
  • Dynamic registration tools automatically establish and maintain alignment of projectors, accelerating setup and other non value-added tasks.

Data delivery is only half of the digital revolution required to close the digital gap. Data collection technologies have also contributed to the closing of the digital gap:

  • Touchscreen remote controls not only deliver EWIs but also allow electronic entry of logins, buyoffs and comments.
  • Automatic population of electronic reports creates comprehensive documentation of the composite manufacturing process for each build – much more detailed than the stamps and initials on a paper traveler!
  • A high-magnification camera added to the laser projection unit is able to leverage the auto-aim and auto-focus features and capture inspection images of the work in progress. AI-enabled analysis of these images completely automates in-process inspection of composites fabrication.
  • Automatic inspection data and images are included in electronic reports, greatly enhancing the value of composite manufacturing documentation.

Approaching Industry 4.0 efficiencies

By digitalizing composite manufacturing, laser projection and automatic inspection open the door to the interconnectivity of Industry 4.0. Instead of a disconnected, stand-alone system, your LASERGUIDE or LASERVISION system becomes an integral element of a comprehensive quality solution, closing the loop from design, engineering and enterprise systems to the composites fabrication floor and back again. This closed loop enables real-time corrective action by projecting the location of any anomalies or flaws detected during inspection. And it contributes not only to an as-built digital twin of each finished component but also to data analytics and deep learning that provide manufacturing insights and lead to continuous improvements.

As you consider how to advance your composite manufacturing speed and quality, be sure to look for laser projection and automatic inspection features that advance your data delivery, data collection and overall digital transformation.