Driving composites quality programs toward Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 for composites is attainable in 2023. If your reaction to this statement is skepticism, not only are you not alone; you are probably in the majority of composites industry professionals. This is especially true when it comes to in-process composites quality programs. After all, quality assurance on most fabrication floors still depends on manual inspections – an approach that predates technologies of the third industrial revolution. We hope the following review of composites quality technologies will help alleviate your skepticism, and perhaps even lead you to consider how to advance your composites quality program toward Industry 4.0.

Historically, the four industrial revolutions have taken place over centuries, from the 1760s to today. The use of composite materials traces back even further, to the mud/straw and clay/wood composites of ancient structures. For our purposes, however, we are adapting the term ‘industrial revolution’ to refer to four periods of advanced composites manufacturing:

  1. The initial adoption of composites as a lightweight alternative to metals in demanding structural applications
  2. Initial digitalization of composites quality programs through the introduction of laser projection
  3. Digital point solutions that address both data delivery (projection) and data collection (inspection)
  4. Digital solutions fully integrated in the fabricator’s digital enterprise

Each of these periods arguably constitutes a revolution, brought about by what we refer to today as ‘disruptive technologies.’ When the introduction of a technology results in improvements to quality, cycle time and component performance measured in orders of magnitude – that’s revolutionary!

Industry 1.0 for composites

While fiber-reinforced polymer composites were widely developed and applied beginning shortly after World War 2, it was the invention and development of carbon fiber in the 1960s that served as the disruptive technology for the first industrial revolution for composites. It led to advanced composite materials consisting of continuous, oriented fiber in a polymer matrix, which offered the strength and stiffness of metals at one-tenth the weight. As these materials moved into high-performance aerospace & defense structural components, they demanded highly accurate ply placement.

To ensure correct position and orientation of each ply during this period, fabricators used large fiberglass and mylar templates to communicate information from CAD files to the shop floor. Shaped to match a specific 3D pattern in a ply schedule, each template had to be created and stored; then during fabrication, located, transported, lifted into place, carefully aligned and pinned to the tool. An operator then scribed the template’s outline. Only after removing the template and returning it to storage could the operator lay up the ply. This sequence was repeated for each ply – often hundreds of times to build one component. Any change in the part’s design required precise remanufacturing of the templates.

Industry 2.0 for composites

The next revolutionary step for composites quality programs arose from the introduction of laser templating in the late 1980s and 1990s. CAD data no longer had to be translated to analog information in the form of physical templates. Instead, laser projectors now carry CAD information digitally to the shop floor as ‘templates of light.’ As a pioneer of this technology, Aligned Vision (then Assembly Guidance) lopped months or years off product development cycles and days or weeks off manufacturing cycle times for composites fabricators. One of the first studies reported an astounding 85% reduction in cycle time to build large composite aerospace parts. Simultaneously, laser templating boosted the quality and consistency of finished components.

Quality inspectors also gained valuable help from laser projectors, which could display nominal edge locations, fiber orientations and other ply features. Industry 2.0 for composites was characterized by data flowing in one direction, from design files to the fabrication work cell.

Industry 3.0 for composites

Several developments in the first two decades of this century have advanced the digitalization of composites fabrication. Multitasking functionality literally multiplies the number of jobs a projection system supports simultaneously. Process control functionality expands data communication to include non-layup steps (like vacuum debulk information) and electronic work instructions. Full-function graphic remote controls extend the data infrastructure directly to the layup tool, eliminating step-away time. These functions increase the breadth of information traveling digitally from design and engineering to fabrication.

Bidirectional data communication has also been implemented during Industry 3.0 for composites, first by automatic population of electronic layup reports and next by the advent of automatic inspection for composites. The latter began in 2000 with the development of automatic ply verification (APV), an Aligned Vision technology that was fully qualified to verify and document flight-critical characteristics of spars and skins, and continues today with LASERVISION automatic inspection. Industry 3.0 technology consists of ‘digital point solutions,’ projection and inspection systems operating as standalone technologies or integrated with work cell controllers using a software development kit (SDK).

Industry 4.0 for composites

The revolutionary aspect of Industry 4.0 for composites quality programs is achieving full interconnectivity of a composites company’s digital ecosystem. Integration-ready LASERGUIDE and LASERVISION feature an open platform that allows you to connect them to your enterprise system (for example, SAP’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system), to your manufacturing operations software such as a manufacturing execution system (MES), and to your factory automation through plug-and-play PLC interfaces.

For many composites fabricators today, quality programs are the last domain of manual operations and nondigital communications. Now that Industry 4.0 technologies for composites quality programs are available, industry leaders are poised to achieve truly revolutionary gains in quality, throughput and new markets for composites. If you are ready to join them, let’s talk about your composites quality needs.