Composite materials are being used extensively in many industrial sectors. They offer excellent material properties compared to other structural materials available. However, the traditional fabrication process using manual hand lay-up is time consuming and labour intensive. Therefore, robotic fibre placement has been introduced to overcome these drawbacks. This approach may greatly reduce cycle time and manufacturing costs. This paper describes the overall strategy for the establishment of a flexible robotic fibre placement technique. The fabrication process planning of this new technique is presented. Three different types of fibre placement for open surfaces are discussed. These include simulation-based fibre path generation, fibre steering, and sensory-based contour following methodologies. The system architecture for the process control is also presented. © 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.