Composite Honeycomb Sandwich Repairs – Machining Processes and Equipment (Part Two)

in Advanced Composite Materials


Countersinking a composite structure is required when flush head fasteners are to be installed in the assembly. For metallic structures, a 100° included angle shear or tension head fastener has been the typical approach. In composite structures, two types of fastener are commonly used: a 100° included angle tension head fastener or a 130° included angle head fastener. The advantage of the 130° head is that the fastener head can have about the same diameter as a tension head 100° fastener with the head depth of a shear-type head 100° fastener. For seating flush fasteners in composite parts, it is recommended that the countersink cutters be designed to produce a controlled radius between the hole and the countersink to accommodate the head-to-shank fillet radius on the fasteners. In addition, a chamfer operation or a washer may be required to provide proper clearance for protruding head fastener head-to-shank radii. Whichever head style is used, a matching countersink/chamfer must be prepared in the composite structure.

Carbide cutters are used for producing a countersink in carbon/epoxy structure. These countersink cutters usually have straight flutes similar to those used on metals. For Kevlar® fiber/epoxy composites, S-shaped positive rake cutting flutes are used. If straight-fluted countersink cutters are used, a special thick tape can be applied to the surface to allow for a clean cutting of the Kevlar® fibers, but this is not as effective as the S-shaped fluted cutters. Use of a piloted countersink cutter is recommended because it ensures better concentricity between the hole and the countersink and decreases the possibility of gaps under the fasteners due to misalignment or delaminations of the part.

Use a microstop countersink gauge to produce consistent countersink wells. Do not countersink through more than 70 percent of the skin depth because a deeper countersink well reduces material strength. When a piloted countersink cutter is used, the pilot must be periodically checked for wear, as wear can cause reduction of concentricity between the hole and countersink. This is especially true for countersink cutters with only one cutting edge. For piloted countersink cutters, position the pilot in the hole and bring the cutter to full rpm before beginning to feed the cutter into the hole and preparing the countersink. If the cutter is in contact with the composite before triggering the drill motor, you may get splintering.

Cutting Processes and Precautions

Cutters that work well for metals would either have a short life or produce a poorly cut edge if used for composite materials. The cutters that are used for composites vary with the composite material that is being cut. The general rule for cutting composites is high speed and slow feed.

  • Carbon fiber reinforced plastics: Carbon fiber is very hard and quickly wears out high speed steel cutters. For most trimming and cutting tasks, diamond grit cutters are best. Aluminum-oxide or silicon-carbide sandpaper or cloth is used for sanding. Silicon-carbide lasts longer then aluminum-oxide. Router bits can also be made from solid carbide or diamond coated.
  • Glass fiber reinforced plastics: Glass fibers, like carbon, are very hard and quickly wear out high-speed steel cutters. Fiberglass is drilled with the same type and material drill bits as carbon fiber.
  • Aramid (Kevlar®) fiber-reinforced plastics: Aramid fiber is not as hard as carbon and glass fiber, and cutters made from high-speed steel can be used. To prevent loose fibers at the edge of aramid composites, hold the part and then cut with a shearing action. Aramid composites need to be supported with a plastic backup plate. The aramid and backup plate are cut through at the same time. Aramid fibers are best cut by being held in tension and then sheared. There are specially shaped cutters that pull on the fibers and then shear them. When using scissors to cut aramid fabric or prepreg, they must have a shearing edge on one blade and a serrated or grooved surface on the other. These serrations hold the material from slipping. Sharp blades should always be used as they minimize fiber damage. Always clean the scissor serrations immediately after use so the uncured resin does not ruin the scissors.

Always use safety glasses and other protective equipment when using tools and equipment.

Figure 7-88. Bandsaw.

Figure 7-88. Bandsaw.

Cutting Equipment

The bandsaw is the equipment that is most often used in a repair shop for cutting composite materials. A toothless carbide or diamond-coated saw blade is recommended. A typical saw blade with teeth does not last long if carbon fiber or fiberglass is cut. [Figure 7-88] Air-driven hand tools, such as routers, saber saws, die grinders, and cut-off wheels can be used to trim composite parts. Carbide or diamond-coated cutting tools produce a better finish and they last much longer. Specialized shops have ultrasonic, waterjet, and laser cutters. These types of equipment are numerical controlled (NC) and produce superior edge and hole quality. A waterjet cutter cannot be used for honeycomb structure because it introduces water in the part. Do not cut anything else on equipment that is used for composites because other materials can contaminate the composite material.

Figure 7-89. Gerber cutting table.

Figure 7-89. Gerber cutting table.

Prepreg materials can be cut with a CNC Gerber table. The use of this equipment speeds up the cutting process and optimizes the use of the material. Design software is available that calculates how to cut plies for complex shapes. [Figures 7-89]