In response to aerospace industry demands for an automated tool for the precision application of masking tape during painting, two robotics companies – US-based Aerobotix and FerRobotics, from Austria – have developed what they claim is a ‘revolutionary’ end-of-arm Tooling (EOAT) solution – the Active Taping Kit (ATK).
This new, integrated system is based on FerRobotics’ patented Active Compliant Technology (ACT) and a tape applicator optimised for robot use – helping to automate the industrial taping and masking process with control of all individual process parameters, including contact force, cutting and tape consumption. Said to be an example of Industry 4.0, the ready-to-use solution offers robot-compatible and sensitive-tape application, meaning that a robot can impart varying pressures when applying tape to an aircraft, as well as smooth masking on parts varying in shape, so that perfectly straight tape lines are laid, exactly where needed.
The development follows months of collaborative engineering efforts between the two partners during the Covid-19 pandemic, when prototyping and testing took place at the Aerobotix in-house process laboratory. The resulting system is said to have exceeded expectations for precision and reliability throughout the tests. The laboratory itself houses a range of automated systems used to paint, cure, sand and inspect products for aerospace and defence customers.
Funding for this international project was provided by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) led by Materials Research Engineer Dr Carl Lombard. AFRL saw the potential value in the EOAT concept and assessed that manufacturing downtime during the pandemic offered a good opportunity to support development and testing. First-hand experience of programmes where manual masking is impacting costs and delivery schedules made Lombard and the AFRL team the right fit for financially backing the development of this new solution.
Chris Kolb, Aerobotix vice-president of sales, said that customers had been asking to automate the masking process for years, though the technology to do so correctly had not, previously, been available. He added: “The FerRobotics ACT device lets the robot ‘feel’ the part and instantly adjust the pressure used to apply the tape. We needed this sensitivity to put masking tape down correctly and not damage high-value parts.”
Partnership colleague and FerRobotics Founder and CEO, Dr Ronald Naderer, said that the compact, lightweight ATK is designed to apply various kinds of tapes on any part or surface with exact repeatability, with the joint project with Aerobotix having resulted in “an innovative product that should thoroughly satisfy customer needs”.
Leading the project’s US team was Aerobotix Process Engineering Manager Kent Pfeifer, who revealed they had jokingly called the ATK their ‘pandemic baby’. “We just went for it,” he said, when both companies found themselves with extra bandwidth due to pandemic disruptions and the AFRL had funding available. “We are running all types of masking tapes through the ATK and, so far, they’re all working great,” Pfeifer stated. “What we didn’t realise going into this is that having the robot put down the first tape lines saves the painters a ton of time and errors, as they then don’t have to measure or use templates to get the tape lines accurate. The savings, in time and costs, are exceeding all our expectations.”
With the ATK’s automated masking process set to modernise the painting process, it’s already being tested on several aircraft and, in November, became one of only five projects nominated for the Econovius Award, a special prize under the Austrian National Innovation Award scheme, with successful nominees selected from over 400 entries.
Will joined Fastener + Fixing Magazine in 2007 and over the last 12 years has experienced every facet of the fastener sector – interviewing key figures within the industry and visiting leading companies and exhibitions around the globe. Will manages the content strategy across all platforms and is the guardian for the high editorial standards that the brand is renowned.