Automated layup and forming of prepreg laminates

Abstract: Composite materials like carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRPs) present highly appealing material properties, as they can combine high strength with low weight. In aerospace applications, these properties help to realize lightweight designs that can reduce fuel consumption. Within the aerospace industry, the use of these types of materials has increased drastically with the introduction of a new generation of commercial aircraft. This increased use of CFRP drives a need to develop more rational manufacturing methods.For aerospace applications, CFRP products are commonly manufactured from a material called prepreg, which consists of carbon fibers impregnated with uncured polymer resin. There are two dominant manufacturing technologies for automated manufacturing using prepreg, automated tape layup and automated fiber placement. These two technologies are not suitable for all types of products, either due to technical limitations or a combination of high investment costs and low productivity. Automation alternatives to the two dominant technologies have been attempted, but have so far had limited impact. Due to the lack of automation alternatives, manual manufacturing methods are commonly employed for the manufacturing of complex-shaped products in low to medium manufacturing volumes.The research presented in this thesis aims to explore how automated manufacturing systems for the manufacturing of complex CFRP products made from prepreg can be designed so that they meet the needs and requirements of the aerospace industry, and are suitable for low to medium production volumes. In order to explore the area, a demonstrator-centered research approach has been employed. A number of demonstrators, in the form of automated manufacturing cells, have been designed and tested with industrial and research partners. The demonstrators have been used to identify key methods and technologies that enable this type of manufacturing, and to analyze some of these methods and technologies in detail. The demonstrators have also been used to map challenges that affect the development of enabling methods and technologies.Automated manufacturing of products with complex shapes can be simplified by dividing the process into two steps. Thin layers of prepreg are laid up on top of each other to form flat laminates that are formed to the desired shape in subsequent forming operations. The key methods and technologies required to automate such a system are methods and technologies for automated prepreg layup, the automated removal of backing paper and the forming of complex shapes. The main challenges are the low structural rigidity and tacky nature of prepreg materials, the extensive quality requirements in the aerospace industry and the need for the systems to handle a wide array of prepreg shapes.The demonstrators show that it is possible to automate the manufacturing of complexshaped products using automated layup and forming of prepreg laminates. Tests using the demonstrators indicate that it is possible to meet the quality requirements that apply to manual manufacturing of similar products.

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