Engineers in China's aviation industry have put an end to foreign companies' monopoly on a top-tier manufacturing technique that is key to building advanced aircraft, according to a senior researcher at Aviation Industry Corp of China, a State-owned defense giant.
The technique, called automated fiber placement, or AFP, is an advanced method of manufacturing composite materials. Such materials, which are lighter weight and are at least equally as strong as other metals — sometimes even stronger — are increasingly used on aircraft and other high-end products.
"In the past, if you wanted to use composite materials to construct an airframe, you would have to arrange many workers to place one layer of non-metallic fibers on another repeatedly with their hands. A typical layer is only 0.13 millimeter thick, while some parts on the airframe are 40 mm thick. This means workers would place many layers and work a long time to shape an airframe," said Li Zhiqiang, head of the AVIC Manufacturing Technology Institute and a national political advisor.
That process is not only time-consuming but also often has problems when it is used to make a large, sophisticated structure, he said.
AVIC had tried to solve this issue by buying foreign AFP machines, but engineers soon found the imported equipment was not up to their standards and that maintaining the operating software required a lot of money and strong support from foreign specialists.
"So we decided to develop our own AFP machine, for which we had full intellectual property rights, and we were determined to use its research and development to establish our capability of dealing with composite materials," the researcher recalled.
Li was speaking on the sidelines of the first session of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which opened in Beijing last weekend. He is a member of the 14th CPPCC National Committee, the top political advisory body in China.
His institute is the dominant research body for advanced manufacturing techniques and procedures in the nation's aviation industry, and it has played an important role in the design and production of some of China's most powerful aircraft.
After years of hard work and creative endeavors, the efforts of Li and his fellow engineers paid off with the birth of a cutting-edge AFP robot.
"This machine enables a single worker to use half a day to manufacture a certain type of component that would cost six people a whole day with a traditional method," Li said.
Last year, the domestically developed machine started being used to build Chinese aircraft, helping workers improve production efficiency and the planes' capabilities, according to Li.
"With it, we are now able to use fewer composite materials to make airframes. That will save a plane a certain amount of weight that can be used to carry more missiles or fuel, so it will have more combat power and a greater flight range," Li said.