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The Latest Runway for Aerospace Technology from Around the World

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing
An 18-month-old public-private partnership in Hamburg is already home to Dassault, Parker, Rockwell Collins, Solvay, THK, Zodiac. “We don’t care which nationality the company is,” ZAL TechCenter CEO Roland Gerhards said in an exclusive interview at the 280,000 ft2 facility. “If we find their technology attractive, we will accept them as a partner.”

Ohio-based LSPT—its name stands for Laser Shock Peening Technologies—is busy preparing to test the use of exploding vapor from water heated by a laser beam to create tiny deformations in the surface of materials used to build aircraft, to improve crack propagation—and therefore fatigue behavior—in the area.

The ZAL TechCenter intends to “move things along pretty fast,” says CEO Roland Gerhards. “Work on it, complete it, have the final result, move it out. And then come up with new ideas.”

The technology would improve upon the industry standard, which is called shot peening. Today, manufacturers commonly shoot metallic particles at the surface of materials used to build aircraft. The manual process is commonly used in aerospace, despite the fact that it is not terribly precise.

The proving ground for laser shock peening?  An 18-month-old public-private-partnership in Hamburg, Germany, called the ZAL TechCenter.

LSPT’s R&D partnership with the ZAL TechCenter perfectly illustrates how open the center is.

“We don’t care which nationality the company is,” Roland Gerhards, CEO of the technology center, said in an exclusive interview at the 280,000 ft2 (26,012 m2 ) facility, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from the center of Hamburg. “If we find their technology attractive, we will accept them as a partner. LSPT has this really exciting, new technology, and we’re going to closely collaborate with them to establish their technology here in Europe.”

The ZAL TechCenter invested 2.5 million Euros into LSPT’s new equipment. “We’re getting the third installation worldwide, and the only one in Europe,” he said. “It will be available to all partners in Europe.”

The old technology involves the equivalent of tiny “bullets,” Gerhards said. “Laser shock peening has the same impact as the bullets, but it is much more precise, deeper in the material layers, much more detailed.”

While ZAL helps it get “a foothold here in Europe,” European firms get an up-close view of the technology as LSPT gives it life, Gerhards said. “It’s a win-win situation for everybody involved.”

The ZAL TechCenter is “focused on neither Germany nor Hamburg only; aerospace is a worldwide industry, and we are collaborating with worldwide partners,” he said.

Gerhards rattled off international partners’ names: Dassault Systèms (French), Parker (American), Rockwell Collins, formerly known as B/E Aerospace (American), Solvay (Belgian), THK (Japanese), Zodiac Aerospace (French-American), “They are all already invested.”

The ZAL TechCenter also recently announced three research projects on which it will work with CARIC (Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Canada), in Montreal.

The partnership grew out of a German-funded project to establish a global network for the leading-edge aerospace cluster that Hamburg is, Gerhards said. ZAL and CARIC both involve OEMs. They are about the same size. And they share some R&D topics. “We have a lot of things to discuss. We can learn from each other: how they manage things; how we manage things.”

German Heavyweights Join

The ZAL TechCenter also counts Airbus, Lufthansa Technik and German Aerospace Center DLR among its industry shareholders. Also, in its shareholding association grouping are 17 other partners, including Diehl and Altran.

The formal name is ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research. (ZAL is an acronym for Zentrum für Angewandte Luftfahrtforschung.)

The center promotes a culture of “open innovation,” which encourages research partners from diverse organizations to work together “as equal partners for the first time.” It’s akin to “the spirit you will find in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, and less the look-and-feel of traditional research facilities in aviation,” ZAL said.

“What makes the ZAL TechCenter so special is the fact that the partners are all equal and work together without hierarchical issues – universities, research institutions and SMEs, along with suppliers and major industrial players,” Johannes Bussmann, chairman of the executive board of Lufthansa Technik said. “Creative potential has free rein here.”

Better than normal visibility is evidenced by the center’s open halls with galleries, large windows to the outside, where people can overlook what is going on, and no fences.

ZAL serves as a neutral platform where the high-tech equipment and specialist expertise effectively complement one another. Synergies are produced that benefit everyone. The end result is shorter development times for market-ready innovations that define new standards in the international aerospace industry.

More than 600 employees from major industrial players such as Airbus, small and medium-sized enterprises, scientific institutions, universities and start-ups form the basis of a new type of cooperation, characterized by collaboration already in the early phase of technological development.

In its first year, ZAL rented over 90% of its space. The latest tenants to join were Airbus BizLab startups Synergeticon ( ) and Jetlite, which are continuing their growth towards later-stage funding in the ZAL ecosystem.

On its one-year anniversary, the tech center was hosting more than 30 research partners. Companies like Airbus have completely relocated some of their innovation departments to the new center. And Diehl established a completely new R&D team in the facility.

Six Technical Domains Established

ZAL TechCenter covers 280,000 ft2 (26,012 m2)—enough space to host actual aircraft fuselages for R&D projects.

Aeronautical research at ZAL is concentrated on six focal points known as “technical domains” (TDs). They reflect the core competencies of Hamburg’s aviation sector.

TD1 incorporates the Fuel Cell Lab, a research facility crossing industrial boundaries, focused on secure civilian applications for hydrogen, both in aviation and in other transport segments such as local public transport and the automotive industry. The facility is equipped with H2,  N2, O2 and oil-free compressed air feeds, process cooling, and exhaust systems; electrical energy produced during tests can be fed back into the local power grid.

TD2, Cabin Innovation & Technology, looks at research related to aircraft cabins. The core component is the 20-m wide, 11-m high ZAL Cabin & Cargo Test Rig, in which fuselage cross sections of all of the world’s most common aircraft can be installed. The test rig allows researchers to trial efficient space usage concepts, flexible seating, and more efficient boarding and loading methods, and to work together with partners on the integration of new cabin management and inflight entertainment systems. Methods can be implemented and tested at 1:1 scale to see if they work in practice.

TD3, Air & Power Systems, deals with the enhancement of electricity supply and air conditioning systems in the cabin. Research work is being carried out on the AVANT test rig (Architecture Validation for Air Systems of New Technologies). New air conditioning units can be tested here on the ground in an integrated network for the first time. The aim is to increase the efficiency of the system and improve the air quality and thermal comfort for passengers. Ultimately, the successful integration of new cooling technologies means progress towards the futuristic More Electric Aircraft concept.

This is the TD Gerhards anticipates will impact the industry the most over the next few decades. “In 30–50 years, I think we will be talking electrical flying,” he said. “And it works perfectly together with TD No. 1, because I am convinced that battery is not the only solution, or the single solution.  It works perfectly together with fuel cell.  And if you combine battery and fuel cell, it’s a good solution.”

Industrial focus is on TD4, Aerospace Production & Fuselage Engineering. The bulky name is the gateway to research programs addressing future manufacturing methods, e.g. the AM (Additive Manufacturing) process, commonly known as “3D printing”, and the new automation processes often summed up with the catchphrases “Internet of Things” and “Industry 4.0”.

Among the TDs, this one may well be the quickest to bear fruit, Gerhards said. “I think that is the one with the biggest drive because it’s not focused on new aircraft only, but really on improving the manufacturing process, supporting the [production] rate increase. I think it will bear fruit in two or three years.”

At the heart of TD5, Acoustics & Vibrations, is the ZAL Acoustics Lab. A complete fuselage section from an Airbus A320 fits within this acoustic test chamber, one of the largest in Europe. The Acoustics Lab means that from now on, research on noise and vibration can be performed on the ground, instead of having to be carried out airborne as has been the case to date.

One of ZAL’s focal points is Industry 4.0, which encompasses digitalization, automation and robotic engineering in the aircraft manufacturing process.

Within the ZAL TechCenter, TD6, General Processes & Support Topics, will focus on matters of virtual reality. The largest VR-capable screen in the northern half of Germany, a massive 6 x 3.5 m in size, is installed in the building for the purpose, in a room with capacity for around 30 people. With the help of VR simulations, research partners and parties can test products and processes in a virtual setting, optimizing them before integrating them in a real environment. VR is a cross-cutting technology at ZAL, available to all research areas.

“VR is a new way of collaboration between people and a preliminary design”—and ZAL has its own twist on it, Gerhards said.

“In our virtual reality lab, several people can collaborate in 3D,” he said.  “So they can discuss things, and they can anticipate things. You are standing them in front of the screen, and you can move things. You can walk through the manufacturing sites there. You can walk into the aircraft. So you can really see things together.

“You can move things around together. And then say, “OK, even in the aircraft design, let’s move the window a little higher.’  What is the impact on the passenger?  And you can do that together.”

One person wearing goggles with antennae has control of what’s happening, but five people have the glasses to view what is happening at the same time.

Giant aerospace companies have the same thing—but it’s not available to partners, he said. This makes big-league tech (valued at roughly 800,000 Euros) available to smaller firms.

Smaller companies can rent the VR lab, for 300–1200 Euros a day, with support from ZAL. ZAL will delete the data they generate—guaranteeing it will not be given to Airbus or Lufthansa, Gerhards said.

Industry 4.0 a Core Topic

Industry 4.0 can be experienced directly in the ZAL TechCenter for civil aeronautical research.

Horizontal and vertical networking along the entire value-added chain is put into practice here in all its complexity by diverse research partners.

Central aspects include questions of digitalization, automation and robotic engineering, and innovative technologies such as the collaboration between humans and robots.

ZAL’s Virtual Reality Lab has room for up to 30 people. Here, products and processes can be tested in a virtual setting, optimizing them before integrating them in a real environment.

Rate Speed Gains Expected

ZAL will, of course, work on improving the production rate for current-design aircraft. Airbus, for example, has the goal of ramping up to 60 aircraft per month by 2019 from the current rate of 45 per month for its A320 aircraft family. Hamburg is the main assembly site for that family, and Airbus has a current back log of more than 5000 aircraft.

And for new aircraft design, which will involve more AM and more robotics and changing to iterative system installation that no longer waits for completion of the structure assembly, ZAL will help aircraft manufacturers cut back assembly times within the next 15 years.

Airbus and the Helmut-Schmidt-University are working together to integrate exoskeletons into the aircraft-assembly process. The exoskeletons provide support for the manual lifting of elements in the assembly line, thus significantly reducing installation times and health risks for workers.

Additive Manufacturing on Tap

Additive manufacturing (AM) has become a highly significant aspect for aviation and thus also belongs to the core topics at ZAL.

Its essential characteristic of bringing the most flexibility possible to product design and manufacturing processes presents unimaginable opportunities for the needs-based manufacturing of components. The fact that AM methods also allow for the weight of components to be reduced and optimized is, of course, particularly attractive for companies in the aerospace industry.

While the first additively manufactured components are already in use in aviation, for example in the new Airbus A350, research into further application areas is being carried out in the ZAL TechCenter.

What’s New in MRO?

ZAL TechCenter CEO Roland Gerhards models the gear worn by the person charged with moving objects around during a session in the center’s VR Lab.

MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) is directly affected by Industry 4.0 developments.

The field, home to ZAL partner and Hamburg-headquartered industry leader Lufthansa Technik, needs to not only increase the level of automation but also examine the use of supportive human-machine interface systems, which to date are being used to network purely physical production processes with the opportunities presented by the digital world.

The objective is to further increase productivity in order to remain competitive in the long term.

Among other things, Lufthansa Technik is developing a concept for transmission of measured values to tablets, a tracking system with visualization in the area of internal logistics, as well as a mobile phone application for visualizing order-related data. Their investigations are focusing preliminarily on the landing gear, engines and maintenance divisions.

Lab allows flight testing on the ground

The ZAL Acoustics Lab is one of the biggest and most modern laboratories in Europe, fitting aircraft fuselages of various sizes up to the A350 in the semi-anechoic chamber.

The currently installed “Acoustic Flight-LAB demonstrator,” reminiscent of an A320 fuselage section, is one-of-a-kind worldwide and makes it possible to trial new acoustic cabin concepts on the ground that until now could only be tested in flight.

With the help of a mobile sound system consisting of 128 speakers, vibro-acoustic tests can be carried out that very closely approximate real flight conditions.

The background to the research activities is the challenge of developing acoustic cabin concepts and the ever-increasing acoustic demands presented by new technologies; examples include the deployment of more efficient and powerful UBHR engines resulting in increased low-frequency engine noise, and the use of new materials such as CFRPs in the construction of aircraft fuselages, with different acoustic characteristics.

The ZAL partners—Airbus, DLR and three Hamburg universities—are working together in various projects to research new, efficient methods for the quiet cabins of tomorrow.

Cabin acoustics is a central field of research at ZAL. Airbus, the German Aerospace Center DLR, and several universities work together in projects of this segment.

LSP project has deadline

LSPT’s project will be operational next spring, Gerhards said.

How can he be sure?

“That’s the spirit of this tech center, to move things along pretty fast: work on it, complete it, have the final result, move it out,” he said. “And then come up with new ideas. That’s why we have not just an open spirit, but also the open architecture where you can change things pretty fast. We have big hangar doors, and they are there to move things in quickly, as well as to move things out quickly.”

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