Composites Automation LLC (CA), our academic partner University of Delaware – Center for Composite Materials (UD-CCM) are teaming up in this STTR Phase II project to evaluate automated tape placement (ATP) processing of thin-ply composites, including material and process development, creation of a modeling foundation capturing thin-ply placement, test panel fabrication and mechanical performance evaluation. Keys to successful transition of standard ply to thin-ply ATP processing, is the ability to fabricate uniform high fiber volume and fiber distribution composite parts at or below 1% void content
Phase II will investigate other material options beyond the North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT) material investigated in Phase I, evaluate their microstructure and down-select for further investigation. Our ATP robotic system will be reconfigured to include a material handling system that eliminates tape geometry changes during placement of thin-ply material. A key innovation will be the development of a comprehensive modeling approach capturing the complete placement, debulking and autoclave cure process for thin-ply material addressing the critical challenges found in Phase I. This will allow definition of material requirements and optimization of the placement conditions such as speed and head pressure for any thin ply material, recommend the number of debulking steps for thicker geometry parts and provide cure cycle guidance in particular for complex geometry components. The comprehensive software will evaluate the sensitivity of incoming tape material quality on production rate and performance, and enable a virtual modeling environment for thin-ply material. We will demonstrate the approach by building and testing standard coupons as well as complex geometry components to validate and transition the technology to NASA.
NASA has shown interest in applying thin-ply technology in various programs including the Composite Cryotank Technologies and Demonstration (CCTD) project. The Boeing Company was contracted to design, analyze, and manufacture the large composite cryotanks for testing at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. An automated placement system was utilized to place thick and thin prepreg plies with final consolidation using out-of-autoclave processing (OOA). The approach has the potential to reduce cost by 25% and weight by 30 percent compared to existing aluminum-lithium propellant tanks. Other applications where weight reduction and improved durability is key are currently being considered by NASA.
The general approach and specific technologies developed in this SBIR can be applied to other military and commercial applications (aerospace, automotive, wind etc.). These applications may require additional material testing and R&D to meet certifications and particular application requirements and will be evaluated on a market basis.