At the National Composites Centre near Bristol, giant robots are weaving the wings of the future out of fabric. The £800m research facility is one of seven high value manufacturing centres in the UK, designed to help companies – from huge names like Airbus and Aston Martin, through to smaller companies working in everything from energy to sailing – undertake cutting-edge research they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. “Composite materials are interesting because they have unique properties,” says NCC chief executive Richard Oldfield. “That means you can get a much improved performance – so they’re more lightweight or durable, or you can embed things into them.”
The classic example is carbon fibre, which combines the strength and durability of metal with the lightness and flexibility of textiles. At the NCC, ten huge machines mix fibres and resin in a variety of ways to make composites for everything from turbine blades in a jet engine, to railway footbridges that are easier and cheaper to install. “You can tune the material for whatever application you want,” says Oldfield.
Because the material is made at the same time as the part, there’s less waste than other manufacturing techniques, such as cutting into a block of metal, for example. It’s hoped that composites will lower energy use by reducing the weight of jet engines, or replacing resource-heavy materials such as concrete in construction.
Composites have been used in the aerospace industry for a while, but designers haven’t made the most of their possibilities, says Enrique Garcia, the NCC’s chief technology officer. “We’ve been moving away from ‘black metal’, which is essentially trying to replicate what a metal part looks like,” he says. “Now we’re really focusing on design for composites.”
This huge robot arm is the newest addition to the NCC. It layers fibres of material on to a mould in precise patterns to give the finished product the desired balance of strength and flexibility. The fibres are pre-impregnated with resin, which is heated by a lamp and then sets hard as it cools. The turntable on the right enables objects to be rotated.
This machine tests the structural integrity of finished parts using ultrasound and water jets. Twin robots spray the finished component, and the systems listen out for any defects inside the structure. Eventually, it’s hoped that the machines at the NCC will become so accurate and collect enough data during manufacturing, that they won’t need to do testing like this.
Some composites start by weaving fibres around a mandrel, before injecting them with resin. This braiding machine works like a loom, but allows for more complicated shapes to be woven from fibre. It can automatically lay down hundreds of lengths in a matter of minutes, and can be used to tune material so that it’s stronger in a certain area. It’s been used to make complex items including the L-shaped foils on America’s Cup sailing boats.
This array of suction pads is just one part of a huge setup for building the aircraft wing of the future. Two robots – one 46 tonnes and the other 26 tonnes, move along a 20-metre track, cutting pieces of fabric into the required shape and then laying them on top of each other with precision to create the structure of a lightweight composite wing.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
More great stories from WIRED
🤑 Inside the ‘bullshit’ get-rich-quick world of dropshipping
🎵 The secret behind the success of Apple’s AirPods
📖 How coronavirus kills, one organ at a time
🎲 The best board games for adults and families
🔒 The UK’s lockdown rules, explained
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn