The application of composites in the aircraft industry has increased significantly over the past few decades. With traditional composite laminate shaping, each layer is made to conform to the mold surface by hand before subsequent layers are added. This is a very labor- and time-intensive process. There is a great deal of interest in developing an automated process for forming composite parts with compound curvatures. The proposed composite forming process utilizes a computer-controlled, reconfigurable discrete element mold to incrementally form a compound curvature part shape from a flat lay-up, thereby facilitating process automation. An elastomeric interpolating layer, called an interpolator, is placed on top of the hemispherical forming ends of the die elements to prevent dimpling of the composite lay-up. The process employs vacuum to pull a single diaphragm (top), composite, and interpolator into contact with the mold surface. Through an experimental investigation, this new composites forming process with “active” tooling has been successfully demonstrated. Heating of the composite is accomplished by uncontained, forced convection using a matrix of heated air jets mounted above the composite. However, low-powered conduction is shown to be the best heating method in terms of both composite heating time and minimization of through-thickness temperature. Using vacuum to conform both the composite and the interpolator to the mold, and choosing sufficiently stiff diaphragm and interpolator materials, undimpled and wrinkle-free composite parts have been formed in an incremental fashion.

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