Digital construction manual for the Ariane rocket
The upper composite sits at the topmost tip of a launch vehicle. After launch, it is separated in orbit from the central stage and injects satellites into orbit. The ArianeGroup is assembling the upper composites for Ariane 5 and 6 in Bremen; in technical jargon, this is called integration. All components, large and small – such as tanks, the engine, the outer shell, electrical elements and piping – are assembled into a finished upper composite.
The process is highly complex. The integration of a single Ariane 5 upper composite takes an average of three months – provided no disruptions occur. A total of up to 60 employees are involved in the process. The ArianeGroup builds six Ariane 5 upper composites a year, always working on three models in parallel.
So far, hard copy has prevailed. This means the mechanics and quality inspectors are provided with a printout of the work steps at the beginning of each workday. It's not ideal. For example, it is not very convenient to handle the papers in the very small installation space of the Ariane 5 upper composite, which has a diameter of only 5.40 meters.
In the Future Launcher Integration Concept (FLIC) project, the ArianeGroup is researching digital processes for the integration of the new Ariane 6 upper composite. Instead of printed documents, employees shall in future be provided with all important information in digital form on a tablet or data glasses. Smart monitors at fixed workstations, from which employees can access all data at any time, are also being considered.
Unique in the world
A special highlight of the project and unique in the world so far are so-called intelligent network plans: The system monitors the strictly prescribed sequence of work steps and checks which employee can best be deployed to which position. If a work process comes to a standstill, the system automatically calculates where the mechanic concerned can continue to work most efficiently – taking into account, for example, whether the necessary materials are available. In the past, these decisions had to be made by the team leader on the basis of printed workflows. The efficiency gain is considerable.
No one-way street
The digital technologies developed in the FLIC project also facilitate complex and time-consuming documentation. During their work, employees have to record exactly which components they have installed where, using what methods. In the future, these data will be digitally recorded via tablet or data glasses. This saves time and reduces the likelihood of error. Handovers also become easier when digital. If, for example, an employee glues a part in his shift, he can electronically store how long the glue needs to dry. The colleague in the next shift can read this note and know when he can continue working on the component.
Demonstrator in use, industrialization in view
The FLIC project has been running since 2016 and will be completed in April 2019. The result is a demonstrator and software to display the digital processes on electronic devices such as tablets or data glasses. By 2023, the system should be suitable for industrial use, i.e., the upper composites of the future Ariane 6 will be built as standard using digital work processes. Ariane 6 is scheduled to launch in 2020 and be fully operational by 2023.
FLIC is part of a larger research project to develop new technologies for the Ariane upper composite. The project is financed in part by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). In addition to the DLR, the ArianeGroup also cooperates with the universities of Bremen and Wismar.