LOS ANGELES—The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $1.6 million contract to Machina Labs to advance and accelerate the development of the company’s robotic technology for manufacturing metal tooling for high-rate production of composites.

Specically, Machina Labs will focus creating metal tooling for fast-cure, out-of-autoclave composite processing. The Air Force is looking for ways to increase output and decrease cost of composite parts for both manned and unmanned aircraft. Depending on size and materials, tooling for making composite parts for aircraft can cost more than $1 million each and require eight to 10 months of lead time.

Machina Labs has invented a ground-breaking new robotic process that can produce large, complex sheet metal parts—without expensive dies—in less than a week. In the company’s process, a pair of large six-axis robots, empowered by artificial intelligence, work together from opposite sides to form a piece of sheet metal, much like the way skilled craftsmen once created metal parts with a hammer and anvil. 

The process can be used to create sheet metal parts out of steel, aluminum, titanium and other metals. It can also be used to create tooling for making composite parts.

Through a previous contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Machina Labs validated that its tools have vacuum integrity, are dimensionally stable once thermally stabilized, and are thermally more responsive than conventional metal tools.

“Machina Labs has demonstrated that its large-envelope, two-robot, incremental sheet metal forming technology can be used for manufacturing metal tooling for composites, resulting in dramatically reduced tool costs and time-to-market of composite parts,” says Craig Neslen, manufacturing lead for the Autonomous Collaborative Platforms Program at AFRL. “At the same time, given that no part-specific hardware is necessary for manufacturing the sheet metal tools, it is possible to not only fabricate the tools expeditiously, but to quickly accommodate design changes when necessary.”

“We are pleased to advance our work with USAF to advance composite tooling for a wide variety of applications,” adds Babak Raeisinia, co-founder and head of applications and partnerships at Machina Labs. “Keeping inventory of tooling is expensive. I believe technology will free up capital and allow organizations such as USAF to transition to an on-demand tooling model.”