Cutting through the clouds above the battlefield, the Boeing EMARSS (Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System) aircraft is designed to gather intelligence for the U. S. Army. The new aircraft will provide a persistent capability to detect, locate, classify, identify and trace surface targets with a high degree of accuracy, whether in the day or at night, and in near-all-weather conditions.
Striving for perfection
Supporting the aircraft modifications is Unitech Composites & Structures, a part of the AGC Aerospace & Defense, Composites & Aerostructures Group. Unitech Composites & Structures manufactures the nose skin panels and multiple exterior fairings for the EMARSS aircraft and ships the parts to Boeing for assembly.
Composite materials are used to reduce the weight of the aircraft and allow for radio frequency transmissivity for radar components.
"The precision involved in the build-up of the composite layers to meet the stringent performance requirements of this program required precise manufacturing capabilities," said Al Haase, president and CEO of AGC Composites & Aerostructures Group. "We addressed these tight tolerance requirements using our GERBERcutter GTxL computer-controlled cutting system and a Virtek LaserEdge laser templating system. This new program called for 26 parts each for five aircraft, so in addition to precision, we needed repeatability of the process."
The Virtek LaserEdge system accurately projects a laser template onto molds and parts to guide operators through the ply layup process. By eliminating the use of physical templates, productivity of the layup process improves by as much as 50 percent.
"An ROI analysis proved that the Gerber Technology solution would have a dramatic impact on our material use, accuracy, labor and overall efficiencies," added Haase. "We were very confident that this manufacturing technology was the best way to produce a quality product."
The implementation plan required the creation of a specific "clean room," due to the carbon fiber and fiberglass materials used, and then the ceiling installation of the two Virtek LaserEdge projection units, to provide adequate coverage for the many sizes and angles of the parts.
"After the installation of the GERBERcutter GTxL and Virtek LaserEdge, Gerber sent a trainer to teach our engineers, and they, in turn, trained other shop floor employees. It was a relatively easy process," said Josiah Drewien, engineering manager for Unitech Composites. "The equipment and training immediately improved our technical capability and significantly impacted our production through-put," he added.
"The GERBERcutter has increased the quality and efficiency of all Unitech's programs," noted Drewien. "Before we implemented this technology, employees cut every ply of pre-impregnated composite fabric by hand, with scissors, using templates. This took considerable time and led to a great deal of material waste. We were only using about 60-70 percent of a given roll of material. With the addition of Gerber's nesting software, we're now able to use 85-90 percent of our material.
The cost of the material is significant, and as a result, those savings can be substantial – not to mention the time it saves by automating the cutting process, allowing employees to spend all their time laying up parts."
Ply layup guided by lasers
Additionally, the Virtek LaserEdge projection system enables Unitech to lay up more complex parts. "Before installing the Virtek LaserEdge system, we had to build a ply-locating template – a ‘shell' that fit on the tool with cutouts indicating the locations of the partial plies," said Drewien. "Ply-locating templates have to be taken on and off the tool every time a ply is laid up; they can be cumbersome, time consuming, and imprecise. For some complex parts, with complicated geometries requiring dozens of partial plies located with greater precision, using a ply- locating template would be impractical or impossible. It would have been very difficult to build EMARSS parts without the Virtek LaserEdge system."
"With our enhanced technical capabilities using the Gerber and Virtek systems, we're able to meet the growing needs of our customers, while also remaining price competitive," said Haase. "We're excited to have the opportunity to play a role in the EMARSS program, and we look forward to closely following its development and success."