Science fiction is rife with stories involving intelligent robots capable of matching human thought and purpose. Some of those stories even have robots rebelling against their human makers. Will such stories ever become reality? Time will tell. Right now, the rise of robots within the composites sector is fascinating to watch. Their performance could be a precursor to bigger things to come.
When you think composites in a manufacturing environment, manual layups are generally the first thing that comes to mind. Manual layups have been around ever since the earliest days of fiberglass fabricating. They still represent one of the most commonly used methods for creating parts from glass and carbon fiber.
As effective as manual layups are, they are also inefficient and limited. As such, the composites industry has been hard at work developing cheaper and more efficient processes. They have spent the last several years adapting the principle of 3D printing – a.k.a. thermoplastic printing – to the composites sector.
3D Printing Carbon Fiber
Fabricating carbon fiber parts via thermoplastic printing is quite fascinating. You start with dual printheads. One feeds carbon fiber thread while the other feeds the resin. The two components combine as they are laid down on a substrate layer by layer.
All of this is well and good from a productivity standpoint. Thermoplastic printing affords the opportunity to create all sorts of carbon fiber parts that just are not practical with manual layups. But, as Rock West Composites explains, current 3D manufacturing technology is not as efficient as it could be. Enter the robots.
Robotic Thermoplastic Printing
Engineers have already demonstrated that thermoplastic printing is a viable process for carbon fiber fabricating. Now they are working on bringing robots into the mix. If you do not understand why this is so important, think about the automotive industry prior to the introduction of assembly-line robots.
Before there were robots, men and women worked long assembly lines on which every piece was handled manually. It required a lot of people working a lot of hours just to assemble a single car. When robotics entered the picture, it changed everything.
Today, robots can do everything from painting car bodies to installing doors and hoods. Robots never get tired. They do not need breaks; they do not stop to eat; they do not suffer from things like poor vision and migraines. They just work.
Composites industry engineers want to bring the same efficiency and consistency to carbon fiber fabricating. They are working on robots that need only a set of CAD drawings and someone to load the thread and resin before getting to work. They also want robots that can be easily and quickly deployed.
On-Demand Fabrication is the Goal
It is already possible to fabricate parts using manual layups, pultrusion, braiding, and 3D printing. So why the push for robotics? The ultimate goal is to facilitate on-demand fabrication. All of those other processes, as good as they are, require a lot of setup time and effort. That requires a lot of human interaction. As such, it is often impractical to do short runs.
Robotics that could be deployed quickly and efficiently would solve the short-run problem. Imagine being able to set up a robot in less than an hour. Set it up, feed the CAD drawings into the computer, and let it go. It suddenly becomes possible to do short runs and still be profitable.
The rise of the robots has finally reached the composites industry. Now we wait to see if they will figure out how to build their own army of carbon fiber soldiers.