Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
I see no ships
I see no ships
Our theme for this issue is "Fabrication and composite lay-up" and the aim is to draw attention both to the current use of robots within this sector and also to future prospects.
One may be forgiven for thinking that this area is for one-off, custom or highly specialist applications and in many cases this is correct, but there is also a largely untapped potential for the use of robots in mass production of composite structures.
In this editorial I would like to concentrate on "composite lay-up". Think composites and you probably visualise Formula One motor cars, precision moulded carbon fibre and large budgets. Or perhaps fighter aircraft and even larger budgets. In these areas robots will be used for reasons of precision, consistency and speed of operation in the face of limited adhesive cure times.
What is manufactured at the rate of 643,000 units every year with a finished product value in excess of US$ 8 billion per year?. Furthermore they are of fairly standardised form and with limited size variations, fabricated within structured environments and employ hazardous and toxic substances. Sounds like a good market for robots?
Boats may not be as common as cars but with an estimated world population of 20 million they are hardly a rarity either. What is more, many of the problems associated with composite (mainly glass-fibre) boats such as de-lamination and osmosis, which are a very visible consequence of inconsistency during manufacture, would be aided considerably and possibly eliminated by the use of robots.
Boats are fabricated using a combination of sprayed-on gel coats, blown chopped strand matting and woven rovings. Of these the application of the woven rovings would present a bit of a challenge (see "Robots improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of composite structures" in this issue) but the rest are fairly straightforward and well established generic robotic applications.
The epoxy adhesives used in the construction are hazardous and the above tasks are (or should be) only performed by people fully suited up for the occasion. Even if reasonable precautions are taken it is still quite common for people to become allergic to the epoxy resins and therefore unable to continue work in boat construction.
The adhesives are also very expensive, so waste must be minimised, but at the same time the use of incorrect quantities can seriously weaken a boat's structure, which can lead to the loss of the boat and, in the worst cases, the loss of the crew as well.
So why are robots not used extensively in the marine industry? The reason is probably that historically boats have been made in limited quantities by a large number of small firms that have quite rightly regarded themselves as craft industries, relying extensively on the skills of the people they employ.
However, this picture is now changing as small firms amalgamate and subcontract major elements such as hull fabrication to a smaller number of companies which have now been set up for this very specialised task. The highly skilled tasks such as joinery and internal fit-out are likely to remain dependent on people, but I see no reason why robots could not be used for the dirty, dull and dangerous task of hull manufacture.
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