- Carbon fibre composites have primarily been used in the aerospace industry but are increasingly used in the automotive industry
- Six-axis Kawasaki robot has a 4-m arm span that can manufacture composite parts using thermoset and thermoplastic materials
- The team is working on manufacturing a carbon fibre wheel for a solar car
- Thin 250-micron fibre optic sensors stay inside the laminate and can be interrogated in-situ
A giant robot at UNSW’s Automated Composites Laboratory is using narrow carbon or glass fibre tape to create custom composite parts.
The Composites Manufacturing Robot can create parts up to 3 m long and is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Gangadhara Prusty, Professor, UNSW Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, said carbon fibre composites have primarily been used in the aerospace industry, but are increasingly used in the automotive industry, as well as many other engineering sectors.
This global demand for carbon fibre composites has led to the use of robotics for high rate manufacturing and rapid product realisation.
The idea for the robot came about in 2013 when Prusty and his research group thought about what could be done in the Australian market to integrate high performance composites research in the country.
“We looked all around and found actually what was missing in Australia was automated fibre placement, which is robotic manufacturing. We looked at specific examples all over the world, primarily from the UK, Europe and the USA, and the big guns such as Boeing, Airbus and NASA,” Prusty said.
After carrying out research about what was available around the world, the team, led by Prusty, applied for an Australian Research Council grant, with the council providing a $500,000 grant in 2014. In partnering with seven other universities and three different industries, the team was able to work with $800,000 in funding.
In 2015, the team purchased a robot from U.S.-based company Automated Dynamics. The six-axis Kawasaki robot that has a 4-m arm span that can manufacture composite parts using thermoset and thermoplastic materials, and was commissioned in January 2016.
“The robot can make specimens up to 3.3 m long and 1.2 m in diameter, and it can make specimens in a variety of shapes with large to small curvatures,” Prusty said.
“You can make cylinders, flat objects, and the latest example we are doing is a carbon fibre wheel for a racing car. We are also trying to manufacture a complex shaped hydrofoil, a scaled version of a propeller.”
One of the key challenges has been to achieve the controlling parameters for the robot.
“There are several parameters that can influence the quality of the specimen to be manufactured, but the three main things are: how much pressure you’re applying, how much temperature you’re applying and how fast you’re making it,” Prusty said.
Over the past year, the team has been implementing fibre optic sensors to track information while manufacturing and what the team calls “in-situ processing parameter monitoring and optimisation.”
“We are making samples at a different temperature, different pressure and different speeds to compare the quality of the product that we are making. By embedding fibre optic sensors to monitor the process parameters we are ensuring the quality assurance of the manufacturing method and product,” Prusty said.
“These fibre optic sensors are really thin, about 250 microns in diameter, and they can stay inside the laminate and can be interrogated in-situ using commercial interrogators.”
The team is also working on manufacturing a carbon fibre wheel for a solar car. The aim was to make the whole wheel using the robot, but Prusty said it hasn’t been feasible to create the rim due to the complexity of it.
A PhD student is also working on a composite propeller project for marine applications.
“The propeller structure is very complex. We are trying to make two things. One is the scaled version of the propeller called the hydrofoil, which will be about 500mm long,” Prusty said.
“So we are preparing ourselves to develop the tooling to manufacture the hydrofoil. Once we are successful, we will try to make a full-size propeller that will be about 1.5 metres long.”
Prusty is currently leading the new ARC Centre for Automated Manufacture of Advanced Composites, which was funded by the Australian Research Council, universities and industries. The centre is administered at UNSW in partnership with Australian National University and the Technical University of Munich.
The centre’s aim is to incubate a new generation of innovative researchers who can transform Australia’s high-performance carbon composites manufacturing industry.
“The speed at which industry is working to partner with us is a testament to how good the facility is,” Prusty said. “They can see how important this facility will be in helping them to achieve their business goals.”
[Image: Gangadhara Prusty (left), Professor, UNSW Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, with Composites Manufacturing Robot and the team.]