Abstract A finite difference method was used to model in near real-time, the deformed profile of rectangular composite plies manipulated by a combination of end-effector suction surfaces. A range of carbon and glass, dry, and prepreg fabrics were modelled and compared with experimental results. As expected, the accuracy of the model increased with a decrease in the mesh-size of the finite difference mesh. The model agreed with the experimental results within 6% depending on the mesh-size. The results confirmed the possibility of applying the model in real-time during robotic manipulation of plies to detect critical regions and collision avoidance. This real-time operation is now possible with lower number of computational points or with a relatively larger mesh-size using the algorithm developed here. A strong correlation was shown between smaller mesh-sizes and the accuracy of the computational prediction model.