Democratizing Manufacturing Tech and Developing the Workforce for the Factory of the Future

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ATLAS students get trained on the Coriolis C1 AFP system by full-time research engineers while producing parts for industry research. (All images provided by ATLAS)

Launched at the beginning of 2019 and currently employing more than 120 research engineers and student technicians, the Advanced Technologies Lab for Aerospace Systems (ATLAS) at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) is a makerspace for industry-scale automated manufacturing research.

Some of the technologies found there include automated fiber-placement (AFP) and automated tape-laying (ATL) equipment from multiple vendors, fiber-patch placement (FPP) for complex geometries, and thermoplastic welding and overmolding for multifunctional integrated structures.

This innovation center offers a multi-disciplinary training environment to prepare engineers and educators for the “factory of the future” and to aid workers in seamlessly adapting to ongoing advancements. Integrating advanced technologies at an industrial scale, ATLAS has become an extension to the research and development capabilities of the global aerospace industry.

Workforce Education for the Factory of the Future

The ATLAS staff works closely with industry partners to develop ways to increase efficiency, productivity and quality. Companies without access to advanced technologies can assess and test these capabilities and develop manufacturing protocols before making a significant investment. Furthermore, the data gathered during research and prototyping on such systems can be used for factory design.

One of ATLAS’ greatest assets is the applied learning workforce model, which allows closely monitored student technicians to work alongside full-time staff with industry experience. Students regularly engage with industry and regulatory agencies during prototype development and material qualification programs.

As part of the university system, ATLAS’ primary mission is to create a pipeline of “industry-ready” future engineers for advanced manufacturing (AM) processes with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as to develop related workforce training programs. The applied learning approach supports accelerated engagements with industry partners providing solutions to their manufacturing challenges through prototyping, providing an excellent opportunity for students and staff to improve their problem-solving capabilities for all aspects of manufacturing.

Partnering on a Multi-Disciplinary Manufacturing Ecosystem

To quickly develop this manufacturing ecosystem, ATLAS partnered with various United States federal agencies, equipment vendors, software developers, material suppliers, academia and industry leaders. NIAR, a part of WSU’s Industry and Defense branch, has built an environment tailored to this sector, with stringent protocols for safeguarding information and the ability to handle defense-related research work and scale products from the material development stage to full-scale prototypes.

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Mikrosam prepreg slitting system at ATLAS with in-process inspection system.

For example, each AFP machine is located in its own clean room so that industry partners can work in different sectors simultaneously in secured environments, protecting their proprietary technologies and processes. These attributes allow vendors of various sizes (from small businesses to large commercial vendors) to use ATLAS as the proving ground for programs such as new product designs, the development of automated processes for parts normally manufactured using hand layups methods and perform research into materials changes, such as thermoset to thermoplastics.

Further, industry partners with similar automated manufacturing equipment can test design concepts without interrupting their production schedules. And start-up companies, especially those in the advanced urban air mobility (AAM/UAM) industry, can now work with the NIAR ATLAS network of material suppliers, airworthiness inspectors and OEMs without the burden and capital they would typically need to invest in order to establish manufacturing facilities during the early stages of product development cycles.

Equipment vendors can now refer potential customers to ATLAS to perform trials and evaluate automated manufacturing systems at a lower cost and with shorter lead times compared to performing these exercises at their own facilities. Software vendors can conduct onsite training where manufacturing equipment is present, allowing attendees to get hands-on experience in a neutral environment.

Tech to Meet Global Demand

The global demand for increased aircraft manufacturing rates while ensuring safety requires a paradigm shift in aerospace manufacturing. ATLAS was established to address this demand. Instead of waiting months for a system at a vendor’s facility, manufacturers can now access these technologies at ATLAS quickly and less expensively.

For instance, Coriolis and Electroimpact AFP systems on the WSU campus are equipped with Laserline systems to meet the precision and high-temperature requirements for processing thermoplastic material systems. The second Electroimpact system at ATLAS is equipped with several AFP heads with variable spot-size-laser systems that allow better control and faster processing of both thermoplastic and thermoset systems.

Similarly, a Mikrosam system is capable of both AFP and ATL manufacturing processes, and it has a filament-winding feature that supports hybrid manufacturing of optimized structures such as pressure vessels and rocket motor casing. This system is equipped with two integrated robots that can lay up simultaneously on the same part or two separate parts, and it has the unique ability to manufacture a thermoplastic composite component with both robots working in tandem. This enables the on-site manufacturing of fiber-reinforced structural parts such as wind-turbine blades to minimize part count, transportation and assembly costs.

To provide manufacturing support for industry partners in a timely manner, a Mikrosam slitting and rewinding machine is available that can slit thermoset, thermoplastic and ceramic matrix composites. The in-process laser inspection system can detect fuzzballs, FOD, twist and out-of-tolerance areas for quality assurance.

The addition of an enhanced Electroimpact Scalable Robotic Additive Manufacturing (SCRAM) system with both polymer and metal additive large-scale printing of parts up to 16 ft (4.88 m) in length, five-axis milling and thermoplastic AFP capabilities allows users to additive manufacture hybrid (polymer and high-temperature composite) prototype tooling and machine to the final geometry.

ATLAS has also partnered with Solvay SA to design a research prepreg system capable of producing small batches of thermoplastic and thermoset material, allowing customers to work closely with material suppliers for custom solutions in either unidirectional or fabric form. Because of this, researchers can now make customized material at a low cost to support prototyping and small business innovative research projects.

To address the demand for ultra-high-rate production of AAM/UAM, ATLAS incorporates fully integrated thermoplastic presses with robots, infrared ovens and injection molding units from KraussMaffei Corp. and Engel Inc. These advanced thermoforming and injection-molding systems are mature technologies in the automotive industry, reducing the risk of adopting them for aviation production, despite necessary process improvements to meet aerospace quality requirements.

ATLAS also uses high-temperature (800°F) autoclaves capable of processing parts up to eight meters long, while industry partnerships provide access to larger autoclaves. Several have in-situ, material-state monitoring with wireless temperature sensors, allowing for process model validation and optimization at the part level. ATLAS is equipped with extensive non-destructive inspection capabilities and certified inspectors. Large-scale machining is also possible via a DMG Mori five-axis milling machine equipped with ultrasonic capability for machining brittle materials such as high-temperature carbon-composite parts.

Applied Research and Inspections

The ATLAS staff is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, NASA and other partners on applied research programs.

For example, quality assurance through inspection and process controls is essential to ensure the material layup process is done according to specification with no process-induced defects. Although AFP significantly improves production rates and quality—due to the lack of reliable in-process inspection techniques—such processes are intermittently interrupted (20%-70% of the production time) for manual inspections, which diminishes the benefits of automation. In addition, manual inspection processes have deficiencies, dependencies and inconsistencies due to poor operator training and environmental considerations.

To take full advantage of automation, ATLAS developed an in-process AFP Manufacturing Inspection System that attaches to the AFP head and detects manufacturing defects above the certification basis or that are otherwise unacceptable. It uses machine-learning algorithms to reduce time-consuming and operator-dependent manual inspection processes that require significant interruption of the manufacturing process. The system also uses AI to analyze vast amounts of digital processing data and geometry (stored in the digital backbone) at each defect location. This data helps identify manufacturing anomalies for optimizing parameters (lay-down speed, heat input, compaction force, steering radii, etc.), reducing manufacturing defects on subsequent parts.

For advanced composite structures, due to significant safety impacts and to ensure integrity and reliability, repairs must be executed in controlled environments with properly trained technicians. For these circumstances, NIAR developed an integrated robotic inspection and repair device called the Joint Autonomous Repair Verification and Inspection System (JARVIS II), a modular system that can be deployed in the field or depot that improves mission readiness through enhanced quality and consistency.

JARVIS II was designed for carrying out wide-area, high-fidelity inspection technologies, including thermography, shearography and ultrasonic-inspection techniques. The robotic system automatically combines dozens of inspection images into a mosaic (a single digital record of all inspection data) in a fraction of the time it takes for the traditional tap test carried out by a trained inspector. The system also uses 3D-surface scanning to generate a tool path to account for blade variations.

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