How to produce larger quantities at lower costs with Automated Kitting

Digitization reduces costs and material waste and increases efficiency.

The production technology for composite material components faces the challenge of having to produce larger quantities at lower costs. This trend is particularly pronounced in industries such as aerospace, shipbuilding and automotive. Digitization offers opportunities and can be easily applied to the production of fiber composite components.

The automated kitting process integrates the production steps of nesting, cutting, labeling and kitting into a single production cell

Higher quantities with simultaneous cost reduction are a particular challenge for manufacturers of composite components. After all, the demands on the quality of these components are very high and only small tolerances are acceptable. More than other industries, the composites industry still relies heavily on manual labor due to the complexity of the production processes. However, this human factor causes some difficulties for manufacturers, such as unnecessarily high material waste, human errors and high manual labor costs. Cost reductions and time savings can be achieved through increasingly available automated manufacturing options, e.g. B. automated cutting of composite materials.

The cutting and superimposing of several different layers is also referred to as kitting. Blanks can be assembled from many layers. A package of layers that is pressed to form a component is called a kit. Workers then insert these kits into tools for further processing. Kitting is an important and labor intensive process in the manufacture of composite parts, which is also very error-prone. The automation of the kitting process therefore brings many advantages. It significantly reduces waste, lowers the necessary personnel costs and also opens up possibilities for maximizing throughput in layer cutting and reducing production costs.

Fully automated kitting cell

The kitting process can be fully automated by integrating the nesting, cutting, labeling and kitting processes within a single automated and digitized cell. Automated kitting systems are used for this, i.e. robot-based high-end systems with automated programming, in order to meet the requirements of the constantly changing layer geometries and alignments. A cell includes a conveyor cutting machine, a robot with a connected effector and a buffer station for depositing the layers (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: The automated production cell consists of a conveyor cutting machine, a robot with a connected effector and a buffer station for depositing the layers

Automated devices and sensors enable the creation of a digital information thread to optimize end-to-end overall processes. All process steps are linked by a digital framework that communicates with the various connected devices and machines. This scaffolding is a key element in minimizing waste throughout the production process, from storage and cutting to kit supply and lamination. Inside a cell, all necessary information including location, orientation and identification of individual layers is provided for the robots and buffer station. This eliminates the need for manual labeling of the layers if it is not required for subsequent manual processes.

Switching from manual to automated kitting does not change the basic steps of the process. Within the manufacturing process, the cell is located between the freezer with the rolls of prepreg material and the laminating cells. A digital work order initiates all necessary manufacturing activities in the right order. This begins with a signal to the warehouse to transfer the desired roll of material to the cell for acclimatization. The nesting software is activated to create the cutting files or to transmit previous information about the nesting to the kitting cell. Then the cutting begins. The cutting machine has a conveyor belt with an extension for moving the layers after cutting to the robot unloading area. There the robot automatically picks up the layers and places them on a tray in the buffer station.

Improved material utilization and higher throughput when laminating

Automated kitting is changing the way kits are built. Traditionally, the kits are ordered per component and arranged by the operators on the kitting cutting table in the correct order for lamination. Depending on the quality and efficiency of the nesting, this can be very labor intensive. Automating this process therefore offers a number of advantages. An automated kitting system optimizes both material utilization and laminating throughput for just-in-time delivery of complete kits. The kitting system can, for example, check certain kits or material flows based on expiry dates or shelf life as well as the availability of the laminating cell in rapid throughput.

Figure 2: The gripper picks up prepregs and other materials. Depending on the material, suction cup or flow grippers are used

When working with many different components or different projects, automated programming of the manufacturing cell increased production flexibility. With information about each layer – including orientation, material and geometry – the robot and end effector are automatically programmed to move to the desired pickup location and activate the gripper appropriate to the layer geometry and orientation. Suction cup grippers are typically used for most prepreg materials and other non-porous materials such as adhesive foils (Fig. 2). When porous materials are used, flow grippers are required for material handling.

It’s all about the data

Kit identification and ply order contain information on the arrangement of the plies. With this information, the buffer station recognizes which kit should be assigned to which storage compartment, and the robot automatically places the layer there. The buffer stations can hold any number of trays that stack vertically and move up and down. The size of the buffer station depends on the layer sizes and the amount of storage space as well as the number and sequence of the kits (Figure 3). Kits with large numbers of layers are divided into sub-kits that fit on a single tray to ensure good sequencing efficiency.

The information on the order of the layers per kit is collected in the buffer station. Because all layer locations are known, the sequencing algorithm can easily determine the most efficient sequential steps before physical sequencing begins. Should unexpected changes occur, the execution is quickly adjusted automatically. The buffer then uses a storage bin and multiple storage locations to temporarily store layers before returning them in the desired order.

Figure 3: The number and size of the buffer stations can be adapted to the size of the layer and the required amount of storage space

Maximize the layer cutting

Automated kitting also offers opportunities to maximize the layer cutting, the packaging of the production output and to limit the production costs. The key element here is the so-called digital red thread and the exchange of data provided by the automated systems and sensors. With this information, the material waste can be sustainably reduced throughout the entire manufacturing process.

In addition to the usual reasons for automating composite production, automated kitting also offers the following advantages:

  • Integration of nesting software
  • Integration of the ERP/MES system
  • Optimization of process flow and project calculation
  • Mastery of complex processes
  • Running dynamic nesting
  • Optimizing costs and throughput
  • Digital tracking for durability, less waste, less need for storage space
  • Higher throughput at the cutting table

By integrating the nesting software into the kit, very complex nestings can be created that would normally be impossible for human operators to follow. The next step is the development of real-time dynamic nesting combined with the cutting process that can be performed on demand. If a layer below is damaged or if a defect occurs within a layer, this layer can be requested immediately for recutting and redelivery from the cell. By delivering this layer on time, lamination can continue with minimal disruption to other projects and without the risk of losing additional layers or even a complete kit.

The workflow can also be optimized thanks to the improved performance control of the cutting machine. Decisions can be made based on actual lamination needs, material costs and blank availability. With increased lamination volume and simultaneous bottlenecks in layer cutting, it is possible, for example, to reduce the nesting complexity in order to enable the user to have the cutting and layer stacks available more quickly. In order to improve the flow in real time, a process optimization is also carried out in advance. This enables a calculation of the maximum utilization of the production facilities.

Integrate ERP system and MES

Process optimization is closely linked to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and the Manufacturing Execution System (MES), which are used to determine which order or part should be manufactured and when. The key to this is a digital thread that connects all elements and gives a complete overview of the process steps. With a better insight into the individual steps of the process flow, the following work steps can be carried out digitally:

  • Order and parts selection and planning
  • Material and roll selection, e.g. B. in terms of thawing reactions and expiry dates
  • Choice of cutting table and work surfaces
  • Selection of methods for nesting, cutting and kitting

The selection can be simulated quickly in each case, which enables quick, well-founded decisions. Even last-minute changes can be simulated before execution, reducing errors or inefficiencies. Such data-driven production can maximize production yield, minimize production costs and roll changes, and improve material utilization and waste material management. In addition, the use of the prepregs can be optimized with regard to the expiration date and the downstream material loss can be minimized. The susceptibility to errors in production decreases, quality increases and less written documentation is required.

A digital red thread

Automated kitting reduces manual labor and material waste and waste. It also offers many opportunities to increase production and reduce costs. The key to this is a digital common thread and an exchange of information between the machines and systems that enables informed decision-making.

Such a digital red thread is only possible with completely digital equipment and requires sensors that collect the necessary information. An automated kitting system is a high-end, robot-based system with extensive automatic programming to meet the needs of ever-changing ply geometries, locations, and orientations. High throughput requires intelligent adaptive algorithms for trimming, storage, and sequencing. Automated kitting systems are just one way to automate the manufacture of composite components. Airborne, The Hague/Netherlands, has also developed fully automated digital manufacturing solutions for other production processes. Customers can buy, lease or purchase the manufacturing as a service.

Read the German version of this article on: Automatisiert zu Faserverbundbauteilen (

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