Launch Stories provides warfighters, sponsors, partners, and taxpayers with an inside look at the technologies and research developed by small businesses working with the Air Force.
Sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), this new forum highlights the advanced tools and innovations that drive US competitiveness and make service members safer, better informed, and more efficient than ever. These are their stories.
(If you are interested in partnering with the Air Force to develop a new technology or explore new markets, you can find more information here.)
Congress established the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in 1982 to strengthen the role of smaller businesses in federally-funded research and development. This program stimulates technological innovation, uses small businesses to meet Federal R&D needs, and increases private sector competition, productivity, and economic growth.
The Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, a sister program to SBIR, was established by Congress in 1992 to encourage small business partnerships with Universities, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and qualified non-profit research institutions.
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Imagine you’ve spent millions of dollars to produce a new composite aircraft wing, only to learn that half your inventory doesn’t pass inspection. Composites are an invaluable asset to the aircraft industry, but their complex construction makes it notoriously difficult to measure and maintain proper manufacturing processes. Using lasers, Creare has developed a new, game-changing technology for composite materials—enabling unprecedented measurement and control of the consolidation process.
To manufacture a composite wing for a military aircraft, an exhaustive series of pre-production testing is needed to specify the variables of the composite consolidation process. After production begins, there is no way to ensure the manufacturing process remains within these specifications, except with post-consolidation inspections of a now very valuable part. Creare’s ILACS™ (Integrated Laser-Assisted Consolidation System) replaces current infrared manufacturing technology to control the quality of composite aircraft production as it happens. ILACS eliminates the need for pre-production testing and provides the in-process data needed for quality control, all while enabling faster consolidation of this critical military part.
Images used with permission of Fives Machining Systems Inc., shown at AFRL.
An F-35 Lightning II (U.S. Air Force photo/Alex R. Lloyd)
F-35 Lightning (U.S. Air Force photo)
The manufacturing base of the F-35 stealth aircraft needed a more cost-effective way to consolidate composite wing skins for the plane. Without this technology, composite-based manufacturers experience significantly higher costs, poor process control, no manufacturing traceability, and added capital costs for more machines to meet demand. Our approach replaces current infrared heating systems used to consolidate composite materials during fiber placement. These multi-spectral heaters are inefficient, underpowered, uncontrollable, and do not allow the process to proceed at an optimal rate. Thus, the use of these systems significantly increases cost.
Creare engineers teamed up with AFRL through a Phase I SBIR to develop a novel system enhancing the affordability and quality of consolidated parts for the F-35 aircraft. We also engaged the Fiber Placement System (FPS) supplier, now Fives Group, to ensure that our system could be integrated seamlessly into the production machine. We developed the final configuration with proof-of-concept testing and prototype system demonstrations.
"The use of lasers and the design of a unique pyrometer will improve quality assurance processes. This project brings all the right expertise in an efficient, skilled, effective team led by Creare." — Greg Ehlert
The ILACS (Integrated Laser-Assisted Consolidation System) replaces the current bank of infrared (IR) heaters with a compact array of laser diodes. Heating of some kind is needed for the large FPS milling machines to get advanced aerospace composites to "consolidate" or, essentially, stick to themselves. Effective consolidation is required to lay up the part in the correct geometry, in this case an F-35 wing skin, after which the part is autoclave cured. Among the many significant disadvantages of current IR technology is the fact that it is multi-spectral (i.e., many wavelengths) in nature. As such, radiometric techniques to measure surface temperature during manufacturing that rely on sampling the radiation emitted from the part surface will not work. Hence, with the current systems, there is no method for in-process quality control. Our compact ILACS replaces five IR bulbs with a unit that is the size of one IR bulb assembly. Additionally, our lasers operate at a discrete wavelength, enabling non-contact surface measurement, and we have developed a unique pyrometer for ILACS that enables on-line control of the process and data collection for quality control during manufacture. The ILACS also enables current FPS machines for the F-35 to achieve their full rate, dramatically improving the affordability of wing skins and the F-35 program.
This project has continued Creare's success in transitioning technologies to major government programs or commercial entities. This program will lead to further technology commercialization through our product-focused sister company, Edare Incorporated, and open commercial markets to laser-based processing for composites.
ILACS increases U.S. global competitiveness by providing a manufacturing technology that substantially reduces the cost of fabricating composite parts.
Our project paves the way for laser-based consolidation of thermosetting and thermoplastic composites. By improving processing speed, quality, and enabling process control, our ILACS will have significant impact in automotive and energy applications. These are being explored now by Creare and others.
"This project will improve quality assurance processes and efficiency of large composite structures, impacting the F-35 in the near term and potentially a myriad of future large aircraft programs." — Greg Ehlert, Materials Research Engineer at AFRL
Hanover, New Hampshire
Creare LLC is an applied R&D; company that has been supplying advanced technological solutions to our customers for more than 50 years. We focus on developing, transitioning, and commercializing new technologies via spin-offs, high-end custom products, and licensing.
Technologies for the Rapid Curing of Composite Parts
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