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Aerospace reaches new heights

03 February 2019

Always at the forefront of innovation, the aerospace sector continues to impress with its embrace of cutting edge technologies. From AGVs and cobots, to composites and 3D printed tools, Charlotte Stonestreet highlights some of the latest applications

There is no doubt that globally aerospace is a colossal industry sector, however putting an actual figure on its worth proves to be somewhat problematic. According to Richard Aboulafia, VP-Analysis of The Teal Group “Aerospace is one of the world’s most important industries, yet there is no consensus on its size and composition”,  while Kevin Michaels, MD of AeroDynamic Advisory asserts that “The best industry data is kept by national industry associations, yet their definition of ‘aerospace’ varies”.

Last year, AeroDynamic Advisory and Teal Group addressed this anomaly by employing clearly-defined parameters to create an independent global aerospace size estimate. Their conclusion is that the global aerospace industry was worth a staggering $838 billion in 2017.

the global aerospace industry was worth a staggering $838 billion in 2017

The independent global size estimate that AeroDynamic Advisory and the Teal Group have created is based on a clear definition: The aerospace industry includes all in-country activities pertaining to the development, production, maintenance and support of aircraft and spacecraft.

Included in their definition of Aerospace are aircraft and space manufacturing, including engines, systems, aerostructures and sub-tier suppliers; missile & UAV manufacturing, airborne defense electronics, aircraft simulators, and maintenance, repair and overhaul, including spare parts and materials. Excluded are airline operations, satellite broadcasting services, ground and maritime vehicles, non-aero C4ISR defense electronics, training services and ground support equipment.
The joint study also included rankings of countries by the size of their aerospace industry. The five largest are the USA, France, China, the UK, and Germany.

Figures published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Department for Transport here in the UK highlight the importance of the aerospace sector to the UK economy. It provides over 120,000 highly skilled jobs, most of these outside London and the south east, and has an annual turnover of £35 billion, the majority of which comes from exports to the rest of the world. Jobs in the sector pay 40% above the national average.

December 2018 saw Business Secretary Greg Clark announce new support for the UK’s aerospace sector in the form of the Future Flight Challenge, which will provide up to £125 million (from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund) to aerospace and other manufactures to research and engineer new technologies and infrastructure, which industry will match.

This will support the development of electric and autonomous aircraft and transform the future of transport in urban areas as airspace is utilised to ease congestion. Industry will initially focus on smaller aircraft and drones to ensure the suitability of the new technologies before developing them for larger passenger aircraft.


Like any advanced sector, much of the industry has successfully embraced growing levels of automation, a trend which seems to be continuing unabated. In one such example, following a collaborative research project with engineers at the AMRC’s (Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre) Integrated Manufacturing Group, entire aircraft wing assemblies could be transported by intelligent, autonomous robots at the Airbus production facility in Broughton, North Wales.
The ambitious project began by developing safe, automated means of delivering tooling supplies internally within the Airbus factory, but could be expanded rapidly as the benefits of using small, autonomous robotic vehicles are being realised on the shop floor.

the benefits of using small, autonomous robotic vehicles are being realised on the shop floor.

Amer Liaqat, technology manager for Assembly Innovation & Development at Airbus UK, says: “This project has been Airbus’ first trial of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) on the shop floor. We have made a number of enhancements to the standard off-the-shelf technology to make it safe and suitable for our factory environment and are now setting benchmark for its roll-out to other Airbus sites worldwide."

The project was initiated to fulfil Airbus’ vision of automating component handling which involves significant amount of manual work due to the sheer size of the components and precision required during aircraft assembly. Automating this process will eliminate the non-value added operations and give significant benefits to Airbus in terms of capacity and rate ramp-up.

“Doing small scale trials with this AMR has given us a good idea of the challenges involved in adapting this technology and the needs for future development work,” adds Amer.

AMRC senior project engineer, Dr Lloyd Tinkler, says: “Supervised trials of the robots have already taken place and estimated that utilising them could save the whole time equivalent of one operator per shift in the current use case at Airbus, freeing time for the operators to work on highly-skilled tasks, ultimately improving shop floor productivity.

“This outcome has led to Airbus exploring opportunities where such robots could be used to optimise processes, including specially adapted versions to pull trolleys with aircraft parts and tooling already in use at the Airbus site.”

Amer says: “We can see the potential to go even further and work with the AMRC to develop autonomous mobile robots for precision assembly tasks such as component positioning and certification. Developing it further, we could see this technology being utilised to transport an entire aircraft wing between factories on site at Broughton."

The robots have been developed by the AMRC based on the MiR200 robot from Danish company, Mobile Industrial Robots ApS. They have a payload of 200kg and top speed of 4km/h and the engineers have been adapting them to safely transport small items such as drilling tools in a storage rack designed and validated for use using augmented reality technologies at the AMRC’s Factory 2050.

Masking system

When a leading UK aerospace company needed a bespoke automated masking system to mask complex areas of aircraft components and avoid precious metal coverage during the manufacturing process, it turned to Astech Projects for a solution.

“While masking and coating is a common application, automating it is not,” said Craig Hamilton, business development manager at Astech Projects. “Astech aimed to increase throughput, accuracy and masking quality by building the bespoke automated system, benefiting from the expertise of adhesive and coating specialist, Intertronics.”

Intertronics supplied Dymax 717-R SpeedMask resin alongside a preeflow eco-PEN450 dispensing system.

The fully-automated system incorporates a 3-axis Cartesian robot and two 6-axis robots working in synchrony according to one robot program. It also includes a high-definition vision system, masking dispensing system and UV curing station. On a batch-by-batch basis, the system can correctly identify and orientate 14 types of part against the preeflow eco-PEN450, which accurately dispenses the Dymax 717-R SpeedMask product. The part is then taken to a curing chamber, where it is illuminated with high intensity UV. Once the process is complete, the component is returned to its original input location. The process repeats itself until the entire batch of components has been processed.

Collaborative robots

BAE Systems is set to embrace the factory of the future with a cobotic workstation being piloted at the company’s Warton site in Lancashire to work safely and seamlessly alongside manufacturers building high-tech systems for cutting-edge combat aircraft.

The technologies that have been developed – including operator recognition and a sensor-enabled cobotic arm – are being tested on the Typhoon production line, marking the latest step in BAE Systems’ strategy to continually invest in and enhance its manufacturing capabilities to deliver the aircraft of the future.

The introduction of new digitally integrated advanced manufacturing technologies builds on existing investments in robotics and aims to drive further productivity, quality and safety improvements into future combat aircraft programmes, helping to increase the Company’s competitiveness and manufacturing agility. Robotics is already an integral part of BAE Systems’ combat aircraft production line which includes a high level of automation, but the integrated sensors that feature in the workstation make this the next step in people safely working directly with robots.

The technology allows the worker to make strategic decisions while delegating to the cobotic arm repetitive, machine-driven tasks which require consistency. This enables engineers to focus on highly-skilled tasks, adding greater value to the manufacturing process.

Dave Holmes, manufacturing director at BAE Systems’ Air business, says: "We’ve only really started to scratch the surface of what automation can do in industry and some really exciting possibilities are emerging as we enter the fourth industrial revolution.

Cobotics is the next, natural step in developing manufacturing technology

"Cobotics is the next, natural step in developing manufacturing technology that will allow for a blending of skilled roles. We envisage that people will make larger, more strategic decisions while delegating the repetitive and intricate aspects of production to a robot."

Composite aircraft structures

A study led by the University of Southampton has been awarded a programme grant of £6.9m by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to address significant barriers in the design and manufacture of future composite aero structures.

Working closely with the University of Bristol, University of Bath and the University of Exeter, as well as industry partners, the project will look to enable more structurally efficient and lightweight airframes that are essential for meeting future fuel and cost efficiency challenges, to maintain and enhance the UK’s international position in the aerospace industry. 

Photo courtesy Airbus

Maximising advanced composite aero structures is restricted by current test, simulation and certification approaches. The programme grant, titled ‘Certification for Design: Reshaping the Testing Pyramid (CerTest)’ seeks to break this impasse by addressing the challenges that are preventing step-changes in future engineering design by reshaping the so-called ‘testing pyramid’, which is the backbone of current validation and certification processes.

The research into composite aircraft structures will look to shape the future of aviation, by driving reduced weight, cost and time for development and testing, through integration of virtual testing and advanced data-rich experimentation of aero structure components and substructures.

Ole Thomsen, Professor of structures and materials at the University of Southampton, says: “This funding is essential to enable continued growth of the UK aerospace industry and take economic benefits from the opportunities inherent in the move towards more sustainable aviation, as it fills a knowledge gap, where there is no equivalent capability in the UK or internationally.

“Using world class expertise, this programme grant from EPSRC will enhance the UK position in the technical revolution that embraces new materials and processes, by addressing an urgent need in aero structures design.”

The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) Technology Strategy and Roadmaps highlights a clear need for continuing improvement in aircraft efficiency, which will require step changes in performance, such as to enable moving to hybrid-electric powertrains and all-electric aircraft.

These transformative technologies will impact on every aspect of the aerospace industry, but will specifically set very challenging targets in terms of the mass of aero structures and new aero-structural forms as the industry transitions to blended wing body aircraft and other advanced concepts.

3D Printed Tools

At Royal Netherlands Air Force’s military base in Woensdrecht staff perform regular maintenance and repairs on a wide range of helicopters, fighter jets and large cargo planes. Performing maintenance on such complex and customised aircraft can be a huge challenge: there are many uncommon parts and systems to work with. The Air Force wanted a more accurate and simpler way to produce custom-made tools that will keep up with the high volumes of equipment, saving time and money.

recruits can learn about design and 3D printing for aircraft maintenance and prototyping

To fully integrate the 3D printing technology in the maintenance operations, Bas Janssen founded the MakAirsJop, a makerspace for defense personnel. At the MakAirsJop recruits can learn about design and 3D printing for aircraft maintenance and prototyping. Janseen began to use Ultimaker printers in his workshops, which focus on gaining and sharing knowledge on manufacturing techniques like laser cutting and 3D printing.

The air base quickly implemented 3D printers across the maintenance department, providing a way to affordably create tools that fit the specific applications in hours and to create special tools to adjust equipment. For example, certain helicopter parts are difficult to configure when they’re installed. By using a part printed on an Ultimaker printer, these adjustments can be made before mounting it into the helicopter.

Furthermore, for the metal parts that have to be CNC machined, the 3D printers are used for prototyping and fit-testing. This way, they can easily and cost-effectively iterate on designs before making the actual part.

Using a workshop of 3D printers means the air base has been able to print numerous parts in the past two years, saving valuable time and money. For example, when jet engines are transported, certain openings need to be covered with a special cap. These parts are expensive to purchase and slow to be delivered. However, using the Ultimaker it only takes about two hours to print the part.

The technology has also enabled the Royal Netherlands Air Force to print bigger parts and start working with new, more advanced material.

Accurate shape retention

Group Rhodes, through its Rhodes Interform business, has developed a revolutionary new process that enables large monocoque components, particularly those produced by super plastic forming (SPF) from very thin material, to more accurately retain their shape on cooling. This innovation, for which Rhodes Interform has a patent pending, opens up opportunities for use in the aerospace sector

The manufacturing process for monocoque components involves diffusion bonding multiple layers of titanium sheet at selected points, and then superplastically forming them using argon gas to inflate the sheets into the shape of a hollow die. This process is extremely temperature and pressure sensitive. At the point the ambient temperature argon forming gas is admitted into the heated component, the gas expands, increasing its volume and hence its pressure if not adequately controlled.

One of the most critical phases during the press cycle is when the component has been formed by gas inflation and then needs to be cooled, prior to extraction from the press. At this stage, very low pressure argon gas is passed through the component (purging) to ensure no oxidization of the internal faces takes place whilst it is at elevated temperatures.

If the purge gas pressure is too high, the component will over inflate and lose its shape as soon as the dies are opened. If the purge gas pressure is too low, the ambient air pressure will implode the component. Achieving the correct balance is further complicated by the cooling component reducing the gas temperature/volume and therefore the internal gas pressure, although with experience compensatory gas pressures can be fine-tuned to compensate for such internal variables.

Certain external factors have however traditionally been more difficult to control. One significant external variable is ambient atmospheric air pressure, which can significantly affect the final shape of the component and take it out of tolerance. In the case of larger components with relatively thin membrane sheets, this can become a major problem.

Rhodes Interform’s innovative solution uses a gas manometer principle in the form of a vertical, open to atmosphere vent pipe, for controlling the gas pressure.  This ensures a constant low-pressure gas supply, which self-compensates to changing ambient air pressures and keeps the material in a constant shape once formed in the mould.

This novel method of gas pressure control allows for the more accurate production of complex shapes and greater control when diffusion bonding multiple layers of titanium sheet.