The technology will be used to manufacture metal tooling for faster, lower-cost production of composite parts
March 16, 2023
LOS ANGELES—Machina Labs reported that it was awarded a $1.6 million contract by the United States Air Force (USAF) to “advance and accelerate the development of its robotic technology,” a key to creating metal tooling for high-rate production of composite parts.
Industry experts project that the airline industry will need to triple its fleet to about 60,000 airplanes over the next 20 years, a scenario that will make higher production rates necessary. A similar drive exists in military applications, where the need to balance mission agility, sustainment, and vehicle cost has given rise to emerging air vehicle concepts like the Low-Cost Autonomous Collaborative Platforms (ACP) program, according to a release from Machina Labs.
In addition, advanced/urban air mobility (AAM/UAM) vehicles have received considerable commercial traction in recent years. Production rates for these highly automated, on-demand passenger and air cargo vehicles are projected to reach tens to hundreds of thousands per year, Machina Labs said in the release.
Lightweight, high-strength composite structures are seen as a key enabler for achieving these goals. But factory throughputs of advanced composite structures will need to be increased and their production cost lowered, the company said.
Machina Labs said that its AFWERX Tactical Funding Increase (TACFI) contract will be focused on metal tooling for a fast-cure, out-of-autoclave (OOA) composite processing route. Through its previous contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Machina Labs has validated that its tools have vacuum integrity, are dimensionally stable once thermally stabilized, and are thermally more responsive than conventional metal tools, according to the release.
Composite tooling, depending on the materials selected and the tool size, could cost more than $1 million per tool and require 8-10 months of lead time. These costs and lead times for composite tooling do not support the goals for increased manufacturing, the company said.
“Machina Labs has demonstrated that its large-envelope, two-robot, incremental sheet metal forming technology can be used for manufacturing of metal tooling for composites, resulting in dramatically reduced tool costs and time-to-market of composite parts,” said Craig Neslen, Manufacturing Lead for the ACP Program at AFRL, in a statement. “At the same time, given that no part-specific hardware is necessary for manufacturing of the sheet metal tools, it is possible to not only fabricate the tools expeditiously, but to quickly accommodate design changes when necessary.”
Machina Labs’s patented manufacturing platform combines advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to rapidly manufacture finished metal products. The company said it uses robots “the way a blacksmith uses a hammer to creatively manufacture different designs and material.”
Robotic sheet forming is the first process to be enabled by Machina’s platform, which is said to use material- and geometry-agnostic technology to outperform traditional sheet forming methods that rely on custom molds or dies (see page 22).
“We are pleased to advance our work with USAF,” said Babak Raeisinia, co-founder and head of applications and partnerships at Machina Labs, in the release. “Keeping inventory of tooling is expensive. I believe technology will free up capital and allow organizations such as USAF to transition to an on-demand tooling model.”
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