GKN Aerospace set to become first UK user of AFP machine

GKN Aerospace is to become the first UK-based user of a machine that can significantly speed up production of complex composite structures.

The National Composites Centre (NCC) in Bristol is hosting the UK’s first automatic fibre placement (AFP) machine with two robotic arms, which produces composites much faster than single machines or conventional hand-laying methods.

The £2.5m machine, supplied by French firm Coriolis Composites, was installed at the NCC research facility to enable companies to develop complex prototype structures and optimise manufacturing techniques before buying their own machines.

Rich Oldfield, GKN Aerospace’s technical director, told The Engineer that the machine allows multi-head deposition of material, which increases speed, flexibility and complexity for large complex parts where various integrated manufacturing techniques are required.

The AFP machine uses its two robotic arms to lay eight ribbons of fibre at a time, speeding up manufacturing while maintaining a high level of flexibility in the process, said NCC chief executive Peter Chivers.

‘The most versatile solution you can get would be with one ribbon, but that would be incredibly slow. So by running eight ribbons in parallel you still get much of the benefits of a very steerable approach,’ he told The Engineer.

‘One of the challenges is to further increase the rate of manufacture by using two machines together… part of the challenge is to make sure the robots don’t bump into each other.’

Companies will also be able to use to the machine to create complex, double-curved structures — those that are spherically, and not just cylindrically, curved — in composite materials to create high-performance wing shapes and automotive parts.

GKN will first use the equipment to develop prototype wing boxes as part of the Next Generation Composite Wing programme led by Airbus and sponsored by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

‘We will be using it for fan case development in CTAL [a project to pilot composite fan structures] and it will be used for other large-scale structures that require different combinations of technologies for optimum deposition,’ said a GKN spokesperson.

The machine was funded by a £1.4m grant from the South West Regional Development Agency and £1.2m from the European Regional Development Fund.