The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 12, 2013

Building the machines that build flying machines

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
Associated Press

— It’s a lot more complicated than selling picks and shovels to gold miners, but the idea’s the same.

As airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, as well as their emerging challengers, charge into a new world where wings and jet bodies are built from carbon-fiber composites rather than metal, only a few suppliers can provide the key tools they all need.

Elite engineering firm Electroimpact of Mukilteo, Wash., is perfecting sophisticated robotic technology to secure its premier place among those toolmakers.

Inside a building just west of Paine Field in Everett, Wash., one of the industry’s most advanced machines for laying down carbon composites zipped back and forth recently across a spinning drum, laying down half-inch-wide ribbons of black fiber as it demonstrated how it can build up a contoured section of airplane fuselage at a dizzying speed.

The machine will soon be shipped to South Korea, where it will fabricate the cone-shaped final fuselage segment for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

But Todd Rudberg, Electroimpact’s project manager, hopes Boeing, too, will buy this automated fiber placement, or AFP, machine to build the giant carbon-fiber composite wing of its soon-to-be-launched 777X airliner.

“777X is the Holy Grail right now,” Rudberg said. “We’re competing mightily for that.”

Electroimpact started out designing and building automated drilling and fastening machines, and made its name integrating those into complete factory systems that assemble metal wings for Airbus in Wales and composite wings for Bombardier in Northern Ireland.

With about 610 employees worldwide, 480 or so at its Mukilteo headquarters, Electroimpact also has ongoing projects with Embraer in Brazil and Comac in China.

To retain its lead role as a toolmaker to the aerospace giants in the new era of carbon-fiber composite jets, Electroimpact is busily diversifying beyond machines that assemble parts to machines that build composite parts.

AFP technology is no more than about 10 percent of Electroimpact’s business right now, but it’s cutting edge and set to grow.

What makes Rudberg’s machine special is that its circular robotic head, carrying multiple creels of carbon-fiber ribbon, can move around any complex shape with pinpoint accuracy and at unheard-of speeds.

First, a laser projector measures the contours of the surface upon which the fiber is to be laid and a computer works out the complex three-dimensional moves needed to tailor the layers according to the engineering specs.