When combined with CAD-based pattern design and advanced nesting software, digital (computer-controlled) cutting systems for composites enable fabricators to not only reduce material waste and costs — even with complex-shaped parts — but also reduce cutting time from days (when done manually) to minutes, lowering cycle time and increasing repeatability and reproducibility (R&R). Still, given the degree of maturity of composite cutting equipment, major innovations aren’t common.
Although cutting tables offer substantial speed and efficiency advantages, integrating them into fully automated production cells can be a challenge. Importantly, the process doesn’t end with cutting out individual plies: Each piece must be collected, sorted, weighed and laid up in the ply stack prior to transfer to the next process step, be that preforming, compression molding, infusion or autoclave cure. Thus, seemingly simple tasks, like automated unloading of the cutting table, can and do become complicated quickly when considered in terms of the larger production process. For example, if nesting efficiency isn’t balanced against ply prioritization, the first piece needed in a layup could be located at the far end of the table and the end of the cutting job where automated handling equipment can’t easily access it. When high-rate fabrication processes are involved, extra time required to work around such inefficiencies can kill attempts to reduce cycle time and squeeze greater efficiency (and cost) from manufacturing operations.
To effectively integrate digital cutting systems into automated part production cells, all relevant equipment, including cutting and stacking (C&S) systems, robots and presses, must rapidly and accurately exchange data to manage timing and control quality.
In an effort to solve these problems, engineers at composite machinery OEM Schmidt & Heinzmann GmbH & Co. KG (S&H, Bruchsal, Germany) took a different approach to human/machine interfaces (HMIs) and the equipment’s underlying operating principles. This led to the development in 2015 of S&H’s AutoCut composite C&S system, with single cutting and stacking tables. In 2019, the technology was expanded and made more modular by allowing customers to combine multiple cutting tables to handle multiple types of material simultaneously, increasing process flexibility within the automation cell.