Laying down the fibre – fast!

Laying down the fibre – fast!
Laying down the fibre – fast!

Mindful of the increase in aircraft ramp up rates, MTorres' new generation of ATL/AFP machines are helping Airbus improve productivity and reduce material waste on its A350 XWB aircraft programme. Mike Richardson reports.

When the Airbus A350 was launched, automatic tape laying (ATL) technology was defined as the baseline for manufacturing the wing components. MTorres was contracted to deliver a number of ATL machines throughout the life of the programme with the focus on increasing productivity and reducing material waste.

With aircraft ramp-up rates literally taking off, MTorres has developed new technologies that match these increasing demands by implementing a new generation of ATL/AFP solutions for wing skin fabrication. Said to provide a boost in productivity up to three times higher, as well as a huge material scrap saving to the user, the solution offsets the higher cost of the slit tape.

MTorres says that in relation to any previously supplied machines, there is clearly a substantial improvement on the lamination equipment it currently delivers to Airbus. The lamination equipment supplied is what it calls ‘hybrid' machines, i.e. machines that have the capability of ATL and automated fibre placement (AFP) technologies built into the same machine. The usage of one particular unit as an AFP or an ATL system depends only on the type of head that the user selects. The machines are basically AFP systems, but they have interchangeable head capability which boosts their productivity since the ‘head' related operations, such as exchanging spools or head servicing, are tasks implemented offline, while the machine is laminating with the other head. This concept, which MTorres has been producing for many years, has now been improved by adding the capability of exchanging heads from AFP to AFP or from AFP to ATL and back.

Two heads better than one

These solutions provide the highest degree of flexibility to the user, given that it may use the machine as an ATL, as an AFP, making different parts, or even for lamination of different plies on the same part using different materials and technologies.

In the case of the A350 XWB wing skins fabrication process, the ability to exchange heads boosts productivity by eliminating machine downtime for head service and allows the user to use ATL head for glass fibre lamination, as well as copper mesh automatic lay up on the skins.

Ultimately, the productivity increase associated to the above explained features, as well as the flexibility that the Hybrid solution provides, helps Airbus to match its highly-demanding A350 ramp up currently being deployed. It's important to add that this AFP technology is a progression on what Airbus initially considered as the baseline for the wing skins. Currently, MTorres' ATL equipment is being used to build the A350 XWB wing skins; only in the past few weeks have the first hybrid systems entered into production. From now on a number of additional Hybrid machines are scheduled to enter into service at two Airbus plants within the remaining months of 2016.

For the manufacture of wing skins and other wing components, such as stringers and spars, the change from ATL to AFP technology is a natural evolution. By making this change, MTorres' technology has helped the productivity improvements and material scrap reductions previously mentioned. This has led to an attractive business case that has driven Airbus into this step change in technology.

The lamination equipment now entering production in Illescas, Spain and Stade, Germany comprises large gantry style machines suitable for wing cover fabrication and are comparable to MTorres' previously delivered ATL systems. The patented MTorres rotary ‘cut and add' system built in the AFP heads is said to deliver the highest productivity solution available in the market today. This feature, together with the current proven systems incorporated in the gantry within which the heads are set up, provides the industry most advanced solution for the application.

In terms of machine tool simulation software, MTorres' Lamination equipment is delivered with its proprietary programming software that allows the user to not only operate a simple programing procedure within a CATIA environment to create the machine CNC part programs, but also to generate a simulation for program execution to facilitate the transition from the CATIA tube to the actual machine tool's manufacturing process.

I'm interested to learn about the kind of relationship MTorres enjoys with Airbus on the A350. For example, what were the demands and challenges placed on MTorres in working with such a large OEM?

Whilst Airbus can be an extremely demanding customer, MTorres enjoys a very good relationship with the OEM and it almost always has a number of ongoing projects at different Airbus plants involving a wide range of products, from lamination to routing, assembly lines, etc. In the case of the A350 XWB wing skins, MTorres says the technical innovations implemented were quite challenging, but the schedule constraints were definitely the toughest aspect of the project.

A proud partnership

What does having an involvement on the A350 XWB aircraft programme mean to MTorres? It's certainly something the company feels very proud of, not only in terms of its volume of Airbus business, but its confirmation as a key supplier to the OEM, as well as maintaining its position as a world leader in composite manufacturing equipment. This leading position is strategic for MTorres and, from this viewpoint its increased A350 presence highlights its fulfilment.

MTorres doesn't appear to have too much competition from other machine tool builders, so I wonder whether it's sometimes difficult to stay focused. The company says its success is due to a number of reasons, but one of the major ones is the consistent and continued R&D effort that it implements as part of its corporate philosophy. Without that effort, MTorres believes that taking a leading position within the aerospace industry would simply be impossible.

Looking ahead, I ask how important is the role that automation plays in volume composites production, particularly as the manufacturing industry generally still places a lot of reliance on manual layup processes and techniques?

MTorres concludes that the general global trend is to increasingly automate industrial processes - and the aerospace industry is particularly strong in this regard. Irrespective of the high number of sites in which manual layup is the norm, the trend still highlights an appetite for automation and sooner, rather than later, any remaining composite part manufacturer will need to take the path to increasing automation. Those that don't will eventually run into many competitive problems. There is no way back from this trend.

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