Laser control for thermoplastic composite production

Automated process to identify and correct temperature irregularities before compaction


Army researcher Adam T. Roberts has developed a new approach for using pre-heating laser arrays and infrared detectors to optimize automated fiber placement machines. The patent-pending technology is available via license agreement to companies that would make, use, or sell it commercially.

Laser arrays are commonly used to melt thermoplastic composites, which have widespread applications in the automotive, aerospace, construction, and advanced materials industries. Several standard approaches use single or multiple heat sources or a laser array to administer and control the heat, including a detector, to provide feedback on any thermal gradients or inconsistencies.

Unfortunately, these reactive feedback loops will only control for material that has already been heated and joined together, so irregularities are not identified until after material processing.

Roberts developed an automated fiber placement machine with a compaction roller, composite tape feedstock and substrate, pre-heat laser array, and infrared thermal image detector to address this issue.

The main improvement over standard approaches is the new system’s ability to identify and correct irregularities before instead of after the melting process is completed.

Composite tape for bonding to a substrate is first pre-heated by a laser beam array before it reaches the compaction roller, generating a thermal image or temperature distribution line that is sensed by an infrared detector and transformed into a control signal.

The control signal records any deviations from a target temperature and compensates for the aberrations by signaling power increases or decreases in individually controlled laser elements in the array.

The pre-heating and correction processes are initiated very closely, but at least 5 mm, before the tape and substrate reach the compaction point.

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