Automated prepreg deposit during the production of shell components for a helicopter | "ProAir" project

Prepreg deposit with a high degree of automation

Carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) is a material that is used mainly in the aerospace and automotive industries. The raw material, which mainly consists of carbon fibers, is molded into high-performance components that can withstand the most significant stresses. As part of the EU-funded "ProAir" project, a highly automated process was developed for this purpose, enabling for example, the production of large-format shell components for the high-speed "Racer" helicopter.

The manufacturing process is based on Automated Fiber Placement (AFP). This development represents a significant milestone because, on the one hand, component manufacture by manual prepreg placement is becoming increasingly difficult for large structures, on the other hand, automation is not economical for small batch sizes.

Video concerning Automated Fiber Placement for Helicopter Side Shells

Highly automated manufacturing process based on the Automated Fiber Placement method

As part of the funding program, an efficient process chain based on the Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) method was developed at Fraunhofer IGCV, enabling the large-format shell components of the racer to be manufactured in a highly automated process. In addition to developing scenarios for the cost-effective production of substructures of the new helicopter, the following objectives were pursued:

  • Systematic analysis of the individual scenarios and prioritization or exclusion.
  • Mapping of the material flow and flexibilization of the production chain
  • Validation of the economic efficiency and the ecological impact

With regard to the production of the shell components, the main challenge, apart from the geometric size and complexity of the details, was to manage the integration of discrete sandwich cores. To achieve a high laminate quality in the core ramps, the lay-up process was optimized by parameter studies and sensitivity analyses. The reference curves could be adapted locally via templates. This enabled the CAD-based programming of the robot lay down paths to be further developed as a central element of the manufacturing engineering process.

Manufacturing steps of the AFP proces
© Fraunhofer IGCV
Manufacturing steps of the AFP proces

Economic and ecological efficiency through AFP manufacturing processes

In addition to the technical aspects, particular attention was paid to the economic and ecological efficiency of the novel manufacturing process during process development. In this context, various process chain scenarios were developed and systematically evaluated based on relevant performance indicators. This resulted in the following advantages compared to hand lay-up:

  • Environmentally friendly process: Improvement of the ecological footprint by 8 to 15 percent.
  • Efficient process: Reduction in CFRP production waste from 45 to 20 percent
  • Economical process: 20 percent cost savings through automated production
  • AFP layup is profitable from 12 component sets per year onwards

After the flying components were manufactured, characteristic material values were determined for the flight approval of the demonstrator. In addition to these permit-to-flight tests, further studies were conducted to characterize sandwich core composites to evaluate various combinations of core material and manufacturing processes.

A look into the future: automation in further process steps

With regard to future research aspects, the focus is on the automation of remaining manual steps (core insertion, intermediate compaction steps, etc.) and the implementation of optimized fiber architectures to unlock the full AFP/UD material potential. Another important research aspect is the automation of design and manufacturing technology (template-based programming). Numerous other applications with automation potential are conceivable - we would like to meet the future challenges together with you!

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Industry solutions

The key sectors of Fraunhofer IGCV:

  • Mechanical and plant engineering
  • Aerospace
  • Automotive and commercial vehicles


We are shaping the way into the future of efficient engineering, networked production and intelligent multi-material solutions.