A key issue for many composites factories is keeping the cutting room efficient.

  • Hand layup of composite materials represents one of the most common manufacturing processes for lightweight structures and requires skilled human workforce to make complex shapes out of individually cut pieces of composite (“plies”).
  • The cutting room is the central logistic point of material flow, where the rolls of materials are cut into the specific ply shapes needed for lamination. Since most composite products have many different ply shapes and combine different materials into one product, the challenge is to organise the cutting room operation in an efficient and reliable way.

By using Airborne’s systems in the cutting room, manufacturers are able to fully optimize the material use and to achieve up to 20% saving on material spent depending on their current “nesting” (the process of laying out cutting patterns to minimize raw material waste) efficiency. In addition, the operator time to make composite plies kits can be reduced from 50% up to 100% for the fully automated options. Additional cost saving is achieved through better quality control. 

Our proprietary Automated Programming Technology makes the systems easy to implement and to operate, while the digital framework and factory interconnection makes the kitting operation predictable and flexible to be efficient in a high-mix environment while allowing the introduction of new products without impacting the operations. 

The Cutting Operation Challenges 

The challenges to address to keep the cutting room efficient becomes even more relevant when utilization and parts scope variability are high. Airborne has worked for several years with many companies engaged in composites hand layup and we have found one common denominator: there is a need to radically industrialize “kitting”.

“Kitting” refers to the sorting and sequencing process, where composite plies are put into the right kit (sort) in the right order (sequence) needed for the lamination of a particular part. This is called ‘a kit’ and in many cases it combines different materials.

When the volume is high and the process is fully manual, manufacturers have to absorb notable fixed costs, because the ply cutting systems cannot operate near to efficiency due to all the manual activities linked to the process and because of the large cleanroom areas that also have to accommodate many tables for the manual offload and plies kitting. 

Sorting and sequencing manually a high number of random plies into kits is not only a time consuming task, which requires many operators, but also comes with a high risk of having out-of-sequence or missing plies, resulting in non-budgeted cost for training, extra operation hours, additional material used and material scrap.

The chart below show the several relationships between manufacturing costs and mix. Even though nesting different jobs into a single nest (mixing nest) provides a notable reduction in material waste, the cost of manually kitting goes up as kits get more complicated.  

Often the compromise is to have a lower material efficiency (simpler nesting, more material wasted) up front in order to avoid mistakes during the manual operation. This last option may make things work better in terms of labour costs and scrap rate, but the financial and ecological impact is high and we have to remember that around 20%-30% of composite materials are currently wasted in the manufacturing process. Opposite if kitting is automated and combined with high mix nest, then the overall cost of the process goes down while the material waste in very much reduced.

Airborne Solutions 

In response to these challenges, Airborne has developed automated and digital “kitting” systems able to improve the efficiency of the cutting room operation and we have further updated our product portfolio to help composites manufacturers improve their operation and increase their competitive advantage by:

•      Reducing labour hours needed for kitting

•      Enabling maximum material efficiency

•      Increasing ply cutter efficiency (OEE)

•      Reducing footprint of expensive clean room area

•      Avoiding kitting errors

•      Enabling full quality traceability

•      Increasing operational flexibility

A fundamental aspect of our systems is that they are meant to handle optimal nests made from a large mix of different parts and dynamic nesting without mistakes; the operation does not have to compromise anymore and can strive for the lowest material waste. 

The Automated Kitting systems are based on the proprietary ‘Automated Ply Placement’ technologies of Airborne, to efficiently and robustly handle delicate composite materials. All our systems can handle dry-fibre, thermoplastic and thermoset materials and our portfolio includes a wide range of systems, which differentiate in functionality and investment level to best fit specific operational challenges.

•      The “Cobot Offload” is a low investment and an easy implementation solution, which provides fast automated offload and increased cutters’ efficiency. It implies a small robot over the cutter or the cutter’s extension.

•      The “Sort by Light” system is a semi-automated and fully digital controlled process, which guarantees zero errors for picking and sorting, while reducing the operator time, increasing the cutter efficiency and the required space for kitting; it assists the operator in ply sorting by a laser guide that indicates the ply to pick, while the Airborne’s Buffer technology presents the correct tray for kit. Alternatively the system can be equipped with automating trolleys instead of the buffer, for storing and moving the kits to the next step in the process.  

•      The “Automated Ply Sort & Sequence”  does not require operator time for kitting and it can function 24/7; the cutting room’s footprint is minimized and the cutter’s efficiency is maximized. The system is built to make kits from unsorted ply stacks, which are manually loaded into the system as is, picked by an end-effector with an array of grippers and placed into the buffer to create the right, fully sequenced kit with zero mistakes and built in quality control. It operates stand-alone and it is made to support the cutting room, working with one or multiple cutters.

•      The “Automated Ply Pick, Sort & Sequence” automates the process all together, from cutting to having the fully sequenced kits in one integrated system. Operators time, material efficiency, footprint and quality are maximized. The system fully integrates the Airborne’s proprietary kitting technology with the major 3rd party cutters available in the market. Material rolls are converted into sequenced kits in this system and comes in two main options, with the traditional buffer or with trolleys where the kits are made available.  

•      System modules and XL variants are used to match different operational requirements for capacity, system speed and ply size. Bespoke solutions are also designed on customers’ request and our systems are also flexible and easy to be integrated with 3rd party technology.   

The Automated Kitting systems are equipped with the AK Manager, the brain that runs the system, provides data insights and that can be integrated with the rest of the operation. The AK Manager runs our proprietary Automated Programming software, which automatically gives instructions to pick, sort and sequence all many different possible ply shapes. This means that programming capabilities are not needed to use Airborne’s systems, which are able to program themselves! The operator needs to upload the basic input for the nest, ply shape, kit and material, the software then creates all codes and process settings to run the system.

Follow the link to the “Automated Programming, to enable on-demand manufacturing in the Dynamic Factory” article to learn more about our Automated Programming technology and how we enable the dynamic factory.  

System Example

Recently we built a fully “Automated Ply Pick, Sort & Sequence” for prepreg composite material, which is now operating in North America and which includes many of our proprietary enabling technologies. The system in question includes two different feeding options, one directly from an integrated cutter and the second via a manual ply in-feed; the same robot is then picking the plies and creating the kits in the buffer. The system is also equipped with a labelling system for the completed kits.

One of the features of this system is ‘Picking from the nest’, which requires high-end technology to reliably separate the ply from the skeleton. This is a complex challenge, especially for sticky prepreg material, and we have resolved it via the technology embedded in the system and the software.  

Another challenge to address was the detection of uncut fibres, which would create the risk of pulling the skeleton along with the ply. To mitigate this risk, the system is equipped with technology able to detect the uncut fibres and put the system on hold for the operator to intervene and also replace the cutters blades (or performing maintenance on the cutter) for a smooth operation.

Preforming and Kitting

Airborne’s Automated Kitting systems is often combined with our Automated Preforming technology to create net-shape, complex geometry, multi-material tailored blank laminates in dry-fibre, thermoplastic and thermoset materials. Automated Kitting is introduced to enable optimal nesting (minimized waste) and to make multi-material laminates, when the cut plies need to be stored until all the materials have been cut.

In this setting, the robot can access the buffer and will take care of the sorting and sequencing. The same robot creates the preforms or tailored blank laminates, by accurately placing the plies and fixating them into a stable laminate. After creating the tailored blank preform, it can be put back in the buffer. The buffer is also accessible from the other side (the outside of the cell) so that the preform can easily be offloaded, either manually or by another robot.


Wish to know more? 

If you want to know more, don’t hesitate to reach out to schedule a more in-depth introduction to our technologies and to discuss your needs; we would welcome the opportunity to provide more information and to co-create a business case for your operation.  

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