Automated Tow/Tape Placement System

manufacturing
Automated Tow/Tape Placement System (LAR-TOPS-342)
High-precision, tool-less composite manufacturing
Overview
In recent years, industry adoption of thermoplastic composites (TPCs) in lieu of thermosets and metallic structures has increased for the fabrication of air and launch vehicle components. Manufacturing of TPCs, performed via automated tape laying (ATL) and automated fiber placement (AFP), uses machines that place prepreg tow or tapes on molds in a unidirectional manner, which then undergo cure cycles, autoclaving, and other steps that require special tooling. The process is time, material, and energy intensive, requires large facilities to house equipment, and limits the size, mechanical properties and shapes of the parts manufactured. To address these limitations, NASAs Langley Research Center has developed a simplified, tool-less automated tow/tape placement (ATP) system. The invention uses two opposed ATP cars working in tandem to achieve tool-less operation, bidirectional lay-up, and expansion of the design space and size of TPC components that can be manufactured using ATP systems.

The Technology
This NASA invention enables several benefits that mitigate limitations associated with conventional ATP systems, including the following: (1) avoids obtuse head rotation or cross-tool translation when laying adjunct tape plies, (2) simultaneously places tape on both sides of a part via two robots, (3) eliminates external anchoring frame requirements, and (4) translates parts during build while also translating the applicator head. The ability to perform simultaneous layup on opposite sides of the component, as well as reduction of head rotation reversal during bidirectional tape layup, offers increased layup speed. The invention offers increased placement accuracy as a result of reduced movement between tape layup operations and the eliminated need for an anchoring frame (facilitated by simultaneous pressure extrusion of prepreg by the two robots). NASAs automated tow/tape placement system has two key unique features: the use of two opposed ATP cars to enable a tool-less process, and an on-the-fly reversal tape/tow laydown tooling head. The system uses two opposing (i.e., underside-to-underside) ATP cars, and can build parts vertically, horizontally, or at any other angle, depending on the workspace available. The ATP die wheels can be reversed or turned to draw the composite back and forth at different angles to create a layer-by-layer composite structure. Both cars can dispense TPC tape thus, either car can function as an opposing tool surface while the other performs prepreg lay-up. For structures that do not vary in thickness, both cars can lay tape at the same time doubling layup speed. Current ATP robots must rotate the large tooling head, or traverse panels without layering tape to achieve bidirectional layup, where each additional movement introduces alignment error. To increase layup rate while simultaneously minimizing misalignment, NASAs system incorporates an on-the-fly reversal tape/tow laydown tooling head to enable efficient bidirectional layup.
A conventional, multi-axis AFP system operating at NASA's Langley Research Center.
Benefits
  • Tool-less: NASAs automated tow/tape placement system eliminates the need for post-layup composite or metallic processing infrastructure (e.g., pre-assembled tooling, autoclaves, molds, ovens), as well as the need for a starting frame for initial prepreg anchoring.
  • Increased layup speed: By reducing head rotation reversal during bidirectional tape layup and performing simultaneous tape placement on opposite sides of a part, NASAs invention offers increased layup speed.
  • Enhanced placement accuracy: NASAs ATP system reduces movement between tape layup (e.g., for bidirectional layup), resulting in decreased tape misalignment.
  • Real-time quality inspection: The invention includes a closed-loop, real-time, in-situ process for inspection and verification of bond quality.
  • Enables large composite structures in remote applications: Because NASAs system enables tool-less builds, it can be used to build unique structures with minimal infrastructure as such, it is ideal for fabrication in remote locations, such as space.

Applications
  • Composite manufacturing: NASAs automated tow/tape placement system can be used to fabricate aerospace quality composite structures spanning broad sizes and geometries.
  • In-space composite manufacturing: Because it does not require tools for operation, NASAs system is ideal for composite fabrication in remote locations, including in-space use.
Technology Details

manufacturing
LAR-TOPS-342
LAR-19705-1 LAR-19705-1-CIP
11/628,636
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