The ARC Training Centre for Automated Manufacture of Advanced Composites (AMAC) at UNSW Sydney offers unique collaborative opportunities to manufacturers. Tara Hamid spoke to the centre’s director, Professor Gangadhara Prusty, to find out more.
Professor Gangadhara Prusty has one passion: bringing industry and academics together to solve real-world engineering challenges, with the focus on advanced composite materials.
A professor at UNSW Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, he was the driving force behind founding the Australian Research Council (ARC) Training Centre for Automated Manufacture of Advanced Composites (AMAC), which launched officially in November last year.
Professor Prusty currently serves as the director of AMAC, where he works closely with industrial partners, UNSW’s PhD students and post- doctoral research fellows around composite material development
The AMAC features world-class facilities for composite material design, analysis, lay-up, curing and testing, all under one roof. But, the centrepiece of the laboratory is the Automated Fibre Placement (AFP) robot – currently the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
The Automated Dynamics manufactured robot platform provides fast, precise and flexible automated composite fabrication. Featuring a 6-axis robot with coordinated spindle, the device integrates computer-aided design, analysis and manufacture of composite components.
“In founding the centre, our objective was to fill the gap for the technologies that were not available in Australia. After extensive research and investigating across multiple countries, we realised there was no Automated Fibre Placement capability in Australia, or anywhere in the southern hemisphere,” Prusty told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
The centre partners with the Australian National University (ANU), led by AMAC deputy director Professor Paul Compston, and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) led by Professor Klaus Drechsler, as well as nine industry partners. These include national research providers such as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Australia Institute of Sports (AIS) and the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST Group) to SMEs (Carbonix, AFPT, Omni Tanker and ACS-Australia) and even large OEMs like Ford Motor Company and FEI -Thermo Fisher Scientific.
“The operations for AMAC began in 2017 with a total funding of $6.5 million over five years. AMAC recieved funding from the Australian Research Council, NSW Department of Industry, UNSW, ANU and all partnering organisations,” Prusty said.
A collaborative model
“Having those organisations as our industry partners means that if we need any facilities that are available in those organisations, they will help us. For example, if a research student requires specialised facilities available at one of the centre’s partners, access becomes easier,” Prusty said.
Apart from collaborating with the founding partners, Prusty said AMAC is looking to expand its industrial partnerships. The centre has already received extensive interest from multiple parties, such as the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) of India, a constituent of the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which has now become an industrial affiliate of AMAC.
However, AMAC is selective when it comes to choosing industry partners.
“We choose organisations that are willing to share their own research facilities with our students. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as our PhD students will spend 12 months working with the industry partner at their facilities to understand their challenges. We then work together to develop a scientific approach to tackle those challenges,” Prusty said.
The centre has a more or less similar approach when it comes to dealing with clients that approach the centre to collaborate on industrial projects.
“Our preferred model is the one where we sign a research contract with the industrial client. We negotiate a framework regarding the duration of the project, the desired outcome for the client, and the availability of the resources. We then come to an agreement with them based on those factors,” Prusty explained.
A one-stop shop
Being an advanced composite material research hub, the UNSW node of AMAC has all of the facilities required from fabricating to testing of composite materials and structures – a process that Professor Prusty describes as the “make, bake, break.”
The “make” aspect refers to various processes involved in the traditional composite fabrication. These include hand lay-up, compression moulding and resin transfer moulding. “The students use the facility to fabricate composite materials of varying specifications. They lay the dry fabric into the moulds layer by layer and infuse them with resins,” explained Prusty, who runs a course on composite materials and structures to the UNSW PG/UG level students.
The “bake” area is dedicated to curing the composite materials, using resin infusion methods, hot-forming and autoclaving. The industrial- grade autoclave can cure composite specimens as big as 1.1 metres in diameter and 1.5 metres long. The autoclave has a maximum working pressure of seven bar and maximum working temperature up to 250°C.
The “break” part is where the specimens are tested under mechanical loadings such as bending, tension, compression, impact and fatigue. The test facilities include the equipment capable of testing samples for uni-axial, bi-axial and multiaxial loadings. The base isolated multiaxial test bed is a 16 square metre envelope, featuring four 100kN Instron dynacells, designed to test large components under multi-axial loading.
The high-frequency fatigue test machine is a compact table top servohydraulic dynamic material testing system that can achieve +/-25 kN force capacity and >100 Hz cyclic test frequencies (at lower amplitudes). The latest addition to the facility is a servohydraulic dynamic test system that provides a combined axial and torsion loading. This is the only system in Australia with a torque capacity of ±1000 N-m.
Digital composite production
The most unique feature of the laboratory is the AFP robot, which features a coordinated multi-axis robot and spindle system for maximum control over fibre trajectories and part geometry. “The AFP eliminates the complexities in traditional composite manufacturing, which involved getting the dry fibres and infusing them with resin. Here, you input the pre- impregnated fibres into the machine and it dispenses them in any shape or direction you want, simultaneously applying the necessary pressure and temperature,” Prusty said.
“This is what we call 3D printing of carbon composites. Similar to the typical 3D printers, the AFP lays the composite material layer-by- layer, creating any desired shape,” Prusty said.
The AFP can make composite parts up to 3.0 metres long and 1.1 metre in diameter. The composite part model is input using CAD software such as CATIA or Solidworks.
The facility includes a head for laying parallel thermoset pre- impregnated composite tows as well as a specialist thermoplastic composite head for in-situ melding (melting and welding) for one-shot part fabrication.
AMAC is currently collaborating with the Maritime Platforms Division of DST Group to develop super- efficient composite propellers for large ocean-faring vessels.
The novel shape adaptive propeller uses an exotic property of composites, bend-twist coupling, to achieve efficiency across a range of operating conditions.
“It’s an intelligent propeller, which means it can sense the water loading and tune itself by deflecting and twisting in relation to the water velocity,” Prusty explained.
Composites are everywhere
While the application of composite material was first realised in the aerospace and automobile industry, Prusty said the composites have now penetrated every single engineering sector.
“The industries are turning towards integration and adaptation of composite material for their light- weight and superior properties,” Prusty said.
One sector where Prusty’s research group is also contributing towards
is the development of composite materials for dental restorations.
The UNSW node of AMAC has all of the facilities required for fabricating and testing of composite materials and structures.
His group is currently working on a project for development of restorative tooth material using glass fibre.
The Australian Research Council, in collaboration with SDI, a Melbourne- based industry partner, has funded the project.
“Normal tooth restoration is usually carried out using amalgam material, which is currently being phased out. Amalgams will be obsolete in a few years. People are looking at alternate materials and we are at the forefront of that,” Prusty said.
“We are developing a novel restorative dental material that is flowable and packable,” Prusty explained.
Smart monitoring of composite components
AMAC is also enabling Australian companies to equip themselves for the fourth industrial revolution by introducing smart monitoring into their manufacturing process. This is a key component of Industry 4.0 that promises to better quality, reduce waste and hence drive down costs. UNSW has developed a novel application for embedded sensor technologies to monitor the processing conditions during the manufacture of composite components and structural health throughout the life of these components.
AMAC uses fibre Bragg gratings (FBGs) for life-long health monitoring of composite parts, as well as for real-time measurement of conditions during automated fibre placement of laminates.
“While a typical strain gauge can detect quantities such as mechanical or thermal strain on the surface of the composite parts and components, fibre optic sensors carry out the
same task from inside and outside the composite laminate, offering very accurate data about the health of the material.
“Fibre optic sensors, having more or less the same size as that of carbon or glass fibres (approximately 125 microns) are embedded inside the carbon fibre composites and remain there. When we pass laser source through the sensors, we can record the refractive index and it enables us to detect structural response due to thermal and mechanical loadings,” Prusty said.