In our last post we described three methods to automate dry fiber Preform manufacturing: Pick-and-Place, Dry Automated Fiber placement and Automated Dry Material Placement.
Pick-and-Place (PNP) – Ply patterns are cut on a Table Cutter, “picked up” and then transferred or “placed” into the mold.
Dry Automated Fiber Placement (DAFP) – Similar to prepreg AFP, where bands of narrow unidirectional tapes are placed into the mold, except that the tape is dry (not impregnated). A small amount of binder holds the tapes in place as they are placed under heat and pressure.
Automated Dry Material Placement (ADMP) – Fabric rolls are cut into Ply patterns and placed into the mold, all in one operation and one machine pass over the mold.
Each of these automation methods provides advantages and disadvantages, as presented below.
PNP has been used to produce preforms for some time, and directly mimics the way many prepreg, RTM and infused parts are made today. The industry is comfortable with designing, producing and inspecting CNC cut ply patterns, whether from prepreg or dry fabric forms. Flat pattern shapes of any complexity can be accommodated (internal windows, cutouts, etc.) Instead of manually placing plies in the mold, with PNP this operation is performed by a machine, therefore the complexity of the layup (mold contour, folded flanges, etc) is more limited. Both woven and noncrimp fabric (NCF) styles provide good mechanical properties as well as excellent permeability for complete resin wetout and infusion. A drawback to PNP is that more floor space is needed for both the Table Cutter and the PNP transfer mechanism. If cut plies are not laid directly in the mold (i.e. are stored in kits before layup), PNP requires more ply handling, which makes it more difficult to manage fabric distortion and placement accuracy.
The design practices, machinery and manufacturing approach with DAFP are very similar to prepreg AFP. This familiarity or aerospace “pedigree” makes DAFP attractive because it is a less disruptive process change where AFP equipment is already in use. Other benefits of DAFP include very good properties achieved with unidirectional fiber and the lowest material scrap rate, since each tow is dropped or added exactly as needed. This feature also means that complex patterns can be produced, though there remain limitations associated with minimum cut-and-add length and edge crenulation. The use of individual tapes allows DAFP to conform to complex shapes. The drawback of DAFP is similar to that of AFP – in practice, actual productivity (pounds deposited per hour, i.e. the floor-to-floor or C rate) is relatively low. The time required to manually inspect every placed tape against the defined drawing often far exceeds the time the machine is actually placing material, and this is another factor in low throughput.
ADMP’s value proposition is that it can achieve very high productivity due to wider materials (than DAFP tow bands), multilayer materials (such as NCF) and pre-made layup schedules provided in the fabric form itself. For example, to produce a balanced, symmetric quasi-isotropic layup only requires 2 passes of an ADMP machine (using a four layer [0/45/-45/90] NCF fabric placed back-to-back) but requires 8 passes of an DAFP machine to produce a [0/45/-45/90]s layup from uni dry tape. Like PNP, the textile forms used in ADMP have very good through thickness infusion properties, but ADMP textile forms do not provide mechanical properties as high as unidirectional tape used in DAFP. The mold contours and ply pattern geometry suitable for ADMP is somewhat more limited than for other methods, and the method has yet to be proven for use in aerospace applications.
So there are many factors and tradeoffs to consider. Nor are PNP, DAFP and ADMP the only ways to automate the Preforming process. Other methods like stitching, 2D and 3D braiding, 3D weaving and others are also being used. Ultimately the choice of Preforming method, when it comes to automation, depends on the specifics needs of the application and the customer.