New automated assembly line techniques developed via an EU-funded project could lead to highly efficient production methods for composite airframes for next generation aircraft. The project partners behind these technologies are now looking to commercialise their innovations, boosting the industry's competitiveness.
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As aircraft and engine manufacturers face growing demand for more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly products, the use of composites in the design of aircraft structures and engines has dramatically increased. Modern composite-based aircraft are composed of several structures (e.g. wingbox, wings, tail planes, fuselage sections, etc.), each made up of individual parts. This means there are hundreds of part interfaces to be managed, both in terms of product design as well as manufacturing and assembly (e.g. gaps, geometrical variations).
Industry is also still using conventional tailor-made tooling, which restrict flexibility during assembly. The EU-funded LOCOMACHS research project identified solutions to all of these manufacturing and assembly uncertainties. The project also advanced robot-human collaboration and developed new techniques to boost the low-cost and speedy assembly of composite aircraft frames.
These techniques will help manufacturers eliminate expensive procedures that add no value to the final product, such as temporary assembly checks, dismantling and tool handling. Enabling a higher rate of production will help keep European aircraft manufacturers globally competitive.
By simplifying the assembly process and introducing automation where possible, the project team has been able to decrease recurring shimming costs by 50 % and dismantling and assembly costs by 30 %, says LOCOMACHS project coordinator Maria Weiland of SAAB in Sweden.
“After 48 months of intense collaboration, our results are very much in line with the objectives that we set out to achieve,” says Weiland. “We managed to build two physical demonstrators in order to verify many of the technologies we developed, and also constructed a virtual demonstrator of a wing factory the ReWiB in order to further optimise our equipment.”
Next generation airframes
Composite materials offer lighter weight, greater strength and flexibility and corrosion resistance compared with traditional metal-based counterparts. These benefits translate into better overall performance, greater payloads, fuel savings and emission reductions. Their assembly however has always been far more challenging, requiring up-front investment in expensive manufacturing equipment and longer assembly times.
The LOCOMACHS project brought together partners representing the entire European supply chain to identify ways of reducing non-value-added operations in manufacturing that consume time and money.
Project partners are continuing to implement the technologies developed during the project, which ended in August 2016. New assembly techniques will be used in the manufacture of next generation short range aircraft and in the upgrade of new aircraft already undergoing production. New manufacturing tools developed by participating SMEs will also shortly be commercialised.
“The excellent collaboration between all partners really enabled us to share knowledge and develop these technologies together,” says Weiland. “These will help manufacturers meet ambitious production goals.”
From the beginning, a key focus of the project has been on achieving seamless automated production.
“We designed more integrated structures along the assembly line with fewer interfaces between parts,” explains Weiland. “Collaboration between robots and people facilitates the continual moving and positioning of parts in areas that are hard to access.”
Along this assembly line for example, an engineer can perform operations on a work piece while a robot keeps the work piece in position. Alternatively both the engineer and the robot can perform separate operations in a sequence on the same work piece. A robotic end-effector was also installed to carry out one-shot drilling of hybrid composite, metallic stacks.
The project team also demonstrated several faster non-destructive inspection technologies. Lasers capable of generating and detecting ultrasonic waves were integrated into the automation process.
Flexible assembly tooling was developed to help manufacturers meet demand for complex geometric parts. Improving human-robot collaboration will also create safer working environments, and the team developed a multi-camera vision system using Microsoft Kinect motion-sensing systems.
“The European supply chain delivers airframe structures to aircraft manufacturers worldwide,” says Weiland. “We expect the results of this project to have a major positive impact on the sector.”