Anyone who has ever painted a bedroom or a car knows that the most difficult and time-consuming part of the process is actually the prep work: repairing damage, sanding, cleaning and masking. Now, imagine if you had to paint a passenger jet.

Engineers at Aerobotix and FerRobotics imagined that scenario, too, and they’ve developed new end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) that enables a six-axis robot to precisely and automatically apply masking tape to aircraft assemblies and other large surfaces.

Headquartered in Linz, Austria, FerRobotics specializes in developing intelligent, sensitive EOAT for robotic surface finishing operations. The company’s patented Active Compliant Technology (ACT) gives robots a sense of feel when performing sanding, grinding, polishing or similar tasks that people can do without thinking.

Headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, Aerobotix specializes in robotic technology for sanding, painting and inspection in the aerospace and defense industries. The company is also a pioneer in mounting six-axis robots to automated guided vehicles.

Collaboration between engineers from the two companies began a few years ago. Now, after months of prototypes and testing during the pandemic, the two companies have finally unveiled their the new Active Taping Kit for six-axis robots. Equipped with FerRobotics’ ACT system, the Active Taping Kit enables a robot to use varying pressure when applying tape to an aircraft. The tool allows for smooth masking on parts varying in shape and puts down perfectly straight tape lines where the customer needs them.

Customers have been asking Aerobotix to automate the masking process for years,” says Chris Kolb, vice president of sales at Aerobotix. “The response was always ‘wouldn’t that be great,’ but the technology required to do it correctly just wasn’t available yet. 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.”

The Active Taping Kit give engineers precision control of all individual process parameters, including contact force, cutting and tape consumption. The device can apply a maximum force of 100 newtons and can accommodate tapes from 25 to 51 millimeters wide. It can accept rolls of tape with a maximum diameter of 140 millimeters.

“The Active Taping Kit offers the highest process quality from one source, and with a design that’s compact and light,” says Ronald Naderer, Ph.D., FerRobotics’ founder and CEO. “It’s extremely durable and is designed to apply various kinds of tapes on any part or surface with exact repeatability and without bubbles or wrinkles. This joint project with Aerobotix has resulted in an innovative product that should thoroughly satisfy customer needs.”

Flexible Assembly

The Active Taping Kit exceeded expectations for precision and reliability during testing at Aerobotix’s in-house process laboratory, a facility housing a range of automated systems used to paint, cure, sand and inspect products for aerospace and defense customers. The automated masking process could revolutionize the painting process and is already being tested on several aircraft.

Funding for the project was provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), led by Carl Lombard, Ph.D., materials research engineer. The lab recognized the potential value in the EOAT concept and assessed that manufacturing downtime during the pandemic offered a good opportunity to support development and testing. Additionally, Lombard saw firsthand how manual masking could adversely affect costs and delivery schedules.

“We jokingly call it our pandemic baby,” says Kent Pfeifer, process engineering manager at Aerobotix who led the project’s U.S. team. “Both of our companies had some extra bandwidth during the pandemic disruptions, and because AFRL had some funding to back us, we just went for it. We are running all types of masking tapes through the Active Taping Kit and, so far, they’re all working great. What we didn’t realize 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.”

In November 2022, the ATK was honored as one of only five projects to be nominated for the Econovius, a special prize under the Austrian National Innovation Award. The successful nominees were selected from more than 400 entries. The Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy presents the ANI Award annually to encourage companies to develop innovative products that contribute to the country’s economic growth.

In September 2022, Aerobotix and FerRobotics debuted a Class II, Division 1 EOAT for robotic sanding. The orbital sander reduces the risk of exposing workers to hazardous dust.

To watch a video of the Active Taping Kit in action, click here.