Digital and automated production

In Hamburg, Airbus has the most modern fuselage-structure assembly line in the company to date

In a fuselage-structure assembly line, single fuselage shells are joined into sections and these sections are then assembled into aircraft fuselages. As part of the increase in production for the successful A320 Family, Airbus has expanded its manufacturing capacities in Hamburg and, among other things, has been operating the most modern hall to date for fuselage-structure assembly for about a year. In the next step, the aircraft parts are equipped with electrical and mechanical systems in the equipment assembly department before they are delivered to Germany, France, China or the USA for final assembly.

Robots on the assembly line

In the new hall, it is fuselage sections for the A321LR that are assembled. A total of 20 robots support the process – more than in other production lines so far. Eight of them drill and countersink up to 2,400 holes per longitudinal joint. A further 12 robots then support the assembly of the center and aft sections to form the fuselage. They drill and countersink holes for 3,000 rivets per orbital joint and insert them.

The use of robots reduces lead times and work volume, as the employees can perform other, ergonomically less strenuous tasks in parallel.

Innovative logistics and digitalization

The new assembly line also features optimized material logistics. The logistics level is completely separate from the manufacturing level. This enables a transfer of fuselage shells and sections without bottlenecks. Moreover, materials and parts are only delivered to the workplace when they are needed there. Autonomous guided transport systems are also used, which replenish parts without waiting times or congestion. Assembly can thus be carried out more quickly and efficiently.

The assembly line also uses digital technologies. For example, touch screens and tablets are available at all stations. They collect real-time data from the machines and show the work progress per aircraft and station at the push of a button.

Airbus already has secured more than 7,300 firm orders for the A320neo Family from over 110 customers worldwide. The aircraft are equipped with the latest technologies, including the engines and wing extensions, called sharklets, of the new generation. These can reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 15 percent.


The basics of 3-D printing

The working group led by Heinkel Group is developing a groundbreaking manual for the design of 3-D components for aviation.

Every mechanical engineering student knows it, every design engineer uses it: the so-called Handbuch Strukturberechnung (Structural Analysis Manual) – defining the basic work of component design – has been available in printed form since 1968 and is now accessible digitally as well. It lists the mathematical formulae and methods that are needed to design aircraft components in such a way that they can withstand the stresses and strains of flight operations and do not fatigue prematurely. The goal: Not every company should have to develop basic calculations itself, but can look them up there – and develop its own new innovations based on them.

Extending to include 3-D printing

But here’s one drawback: the manual only deals with conventionally manufactured components. The subject of 3-D printing has so far been left out. This means, until now, every company has had to acquire the necessary knowledge for additive manufacturing of components completely on its own. This leads to inconsistent procedures and difficult and tedious approval processes.

The Hamburg company Heinkel Group is now moving forward. The Bionic Studio division, which is responsible for 3-D printing at Heinkel, has set up a working group to develop such a manual for 3-D printing as well. It will give designers quick access to up-to-date and assured knowledge, for example how additive components must be optimally shaped and designed or how certain materials must be processed. The working group covers the entire industry and consists of well-known large-scale enterprises and SMEs as well as research institutes and universities.

Making 3-D printing suitable for mass production

Such a manual is one of several important prerequisites for ensuring that additively manufactured components can be used even sooner and more frequently in the aviation industry – in addition to technical requirements such as fast printing technologies.

The manual is funded as a project within the framework of the Federal Aviation Research Program. It shall be completed by 2023. The knowledge gained will then be available to all working group members. The manual will then also provide important content for students. Today, the experts from the project-leading Heinkel Group are already booked for their first basic trainings.

Are aircraft the better satellites?

Several individual aircraft couple to form an aerial vehicle that can compensate for gusts better than a single aircraft with a large wingspan.

These unmanned aircraft are known as high-altitude platforms and can ascend up to 30 kilometers into the stratosphere – a good double the height of commercial aircraft. They can be used for similar tasks to satellites, but with considerable advantages: the aircraft are cheaper to manufacture, reach their destinations faster, are more flexible in use and are reusable.

Innovative flight concept

All aircraft developed so far have long wings, usually between 40 and 80 meters in wingspan. They are designed with lightweight construction to save weight and thus energy. Due to this design, the aircraft are susceptible to gusts, which happen particularly frequently on the way to the stratosphere. The wings are then quickly overloaded, resulting in aircraft accidents.

In the AlphaLink project, TU Berlin is now investigating a new type of flight concept that is designed to compensate for this disadvantage. Individual, smaller aircraft individually ascend to their operating height in the stratosphere, where they join together into a formation with a large span. The individual aircraft are connected by mechanical joints at the wing tips and can then act as one unit. This means that turbulence no longer has an impact on the entire wing and the formation is more stable than a single aircraft.

TU Berlin is testing the concept using a technology demonstrator with three individual aircraft.

Faster, more flexible, more cost-effective

They obtain their energy supply from solar panels. The vehicles can be brought to their deployment locations much faster and more cost-effectively than satellites. Individual aircraft can be decoupled and repaired or replaced, if necessary. They can also descend at the end of a mission and then be reused.

In its final form, the TU Berlin design is to consist of ten unmanned aerial vehicles and carry a payload of up to 450 kilograms, such as antenna or camera systems for satellites. The aerial vehicle is to remain in the stratosphere for more than five years.

TU Berlin has already built a first technology demonstrator in the course of the project and tested it in 2017. It consists of three connected aircraft with an individual wingspan of 140 centimeters. While research into the coupling of aircraft modules continues at TU Berlin, the practical use of the coupled aircraft is being driven forward by the inventor Dr. Alexander Köthe in TU Berlin’s spin-off, AlphaLink, in Berlin. In the long term, it is intended for use in the stratosphere – provided that questions of financing and regulation can be resolved.

For its AlphaLink project, the TU Berlin was the winner of the Innovation Award of German Aviation in the category Rethinking Flying. 



A new way of assembling engines

MTU has created the world's first ground-based final assembly line for geared turbofan engines in Munich.

This in-house development had become necessary because there was no final-assembly system available on the market that was suitable for MTU: most lines operate with guided ceiling-mounted systems, as do the other two GTF assembly lines operated by Pratt & Whitney in the U.S. Such systems were out of the question for MTU because they lacked the flexibility that was needed – scalability as well as flexible engine insertion and removal.

Smart in-house development – autonomous and digital

At the heart of the innovative MTU solution is a ground-based line-assembly system that uses the latest autonomous and digital technologies. The use of cranes is completely eliminated. The engine components are moved on 16 carriers, also specially developed by MTU, which are coupled together according to the progress of the work. The carriers can move in any direction and are remote controlled. The flexibility is enormous: individual engines can be inserted into or removed from the process at any time. Several engines can also be assembled simultaneously at different stages of construction.

The assembly of the engines is automated and paperless. Work plans, routing cards and assembly steps are interlinked and digitally mapped. Screens inform the employees about the individual steps and the status quo. The plant was also built in accordance with the latest ergonomic findings.

In addition, components are heated inductively and precisely where needed before they are joined, thus shortening waiting times and increasing efficiency by 60 percent. This process also uses significantly less energy than before, since it is no longer necessary to heat the complete components.

The system is constantly being improved

The assembly plant has been in operation since 2016 and is constantly being expanded. In the final expansion stage, 80 employees will be working there. So far, about 300 geared turbofans have left the plant. They are used in the Airbus A320neo and contribute to the aircraft's good fuel consumption performance. A third of all A320neo geared turbofans have been undergoing final assembly at MTU's Munich facility since 2016.

The assembly system is being consistently improved and brought up to the latest technological standard. If required, it can easily be adapted for other engine types and is also suitable for engine repair. MTU's new line-assembly system was a finalist for the Innovation Award of German Aviation in the "smart factory" category.

Business trips at top speed

Compared to the predecessor model, the Pearl 700 scores with a 12 percent higher thrust-to-weight ratio and five percent higher efficiency.

The Pearl 700 is the latest member of the Pearl engine range introduced by Rolls-Royce in 2018 and the seventh new engine developed by the company during the past 10 years. In the company’s dedicated portfolio for business jets, this is the most powerful engine to date and offers an eight percent higher take-off thrust than its predecessor – thanks in part to the new Advance2 engine core and a new low-pressure system with a blisk fan.

What's more, although the engine is able to accelerate a business jet almost to the speed of sound, highly innovative technologies make it five percent more efficient and at the same time allow for market-leading low noise levels and emissions.

Animation Pearl 700

Technology of the future from Brandenburg

Rolls-Royce developed the Pearl 700 at its competence center for business jet engines in Dahlewitz, Brandenburg. It was introduced in October 2019 in Las Vegas. The new engine is currently undergoing an extensive test program.

The Pearl 700 is exclusively provided for the new Gulfstream G700, which will be put into service by the American company Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation from 2022. It will then be the company's flagship and set new standards for business jets. Its large cabin – the most spacious now available – its range of around 14,000 kilometers and its speed make this aircraft unique in the world – also thanks to technology made by Rolls-Royce Germany.

Heat shields for economical aircraft

Suspension spraying is used to specially coat components so that they can compensate for large thermal loads.

To ensure that components such as turbine blades can withstand the extreme temperatures, they are given a thermal barrier coating. For decades, two processes have been deployed for this purpose, in which a thin metal layer and a slightly thicker ceramic layer – which together form what is called the thermal barrier coating – are applied in powder form. But neither of the two technologies used so far is perfect. Processing with electron beam evaporators, for example, results in very durable parts, but is extremely complex and expensive. Atmospheric plasma spraying, on the other hand, is inexpensive, but the layers produced in this way are not as resistant.

The best shielding layer

The Fraunhofer Institute has developed a new heat shield technology. A suspension is mixed from ceramic powder and water or alcohol and then is sprayed onto the aircraft parts. The crucial point: by using a suspension instead of powder, materials with particles as small as a thousandth of a millimeter can be processed that could not be used in previous methods. Using these particularly fine materials makes it possible to create layers with a special structure that can compensate well for huge thermal loads – and are therefore durable. What's more, even with large components, the new process is not very complex and therefore comparatively inexpensive.

Like the previous processes, the new coating also makes it possible to raise the operating temperature of a turbine by around 150 degrees Celsius (302 °F) without affecting the components. As a result, the turbine works more efficiently and the aircraft’s flight is more economical and environmentally friendly. The bottom line is a reduction in fuel consumption.

Already in use – and it goes even further

Together with the Swiss plant manufacturer AMT AG, the Dresden Fraunhofer Institute has now transferred this innovative process into industrial practice. The first manufacturers from the aviation industry are already using it. The stability and reproducibility of the coating process is significantly influenced by the properties of the suspension. In addition to other suspensions, some of which are commercially available, suspensions from Fraunhofer IKTS are used, which are specifically developed for this process and produced on a pilot scale.

However, the potential of the technology extends far beyond the aviation industry. For example, the technology developed in Dresden can also be used in machines for the production of semiconductors and chips and can provide better protection against corrosion. The technology is thus one of many examples of how innovations from the aviation industry can also foster progress in other industries.

Accessibility above the clouds

With the help of ceiling and wall handles, wheelchair users can lift themselves to the toilet.

Skypax consists of two toilets and a galley. This arrangement is common and – adapted slightly – can be installed in aircraft such as the Airbus A320 family or Boeing 737. The innovation: The two WCs can be easily converted into a single large, accessible toilet.

Finally, a simple solution

The wall between the toilets is folded to the side in less than 30 seconds. The result is a large, appealing room. With the help of handles on the ceiling and walls, passengers can lift themselves independently from their wheelchair to the second, remaining toilet. If the passenger needs assistance undressing, there is even enough room for a helper.

Previous solutions were much more awkward and uncomfortable. Either the conversion took a long time due to complicated technical solutions or the passenger had to use a kind of compromise toilet, which was much narrower than normal airplane toilets and therefore difficult to use. In addition, the room was so narrow that there was no space for a second person to help.

The environment also benefits

Skypax changes this and enables effortless travel even for people with reduced mobility. The different arrangement in the aircraft also saves space, allowing up to 12 additional seats and passengers to be accommodated. What's more, the new system is around 60 to 100 kilograms lighter than previous models. The effect on the environment is considerable. Skypax can save up to 480 kilograms of fuel per flight. Projected over one year, this will save around 1,500 tons of CO2 – that’s as much CO2 as 168 passengers leave behind as a CO2 footprint each year.

At this time, Skypax is certified and approved. The first 100 orders will soon be delivered – and will then contribute to making aviation more accessible and climate-friendly.

With this innovative solution Diehl Aviation was 2019 winner at  Innovationspreis der Deutschen Luftfahrt in the category "emission reduction".


Autonomous breakdown service in space

Visible Sensor Suite (Photo: Jena-Optronik)

The journey of the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) began on 9 October 2019 at exactly 12:17 CEST. On board a Russian Proton rocket, the service satellite started into space to tow other satellites or bring them back on course. What exactly the mission expects there is uncertain, because some of the satellites have been in space for 15 years.

The journey of the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) began on 9 October 2019. (Photo: Jena-Optronik)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) from Thuringia
Innovative sensor technology from Jena-Optronik makes it possible for MEV-1 to dock to these freely definable objects – fully automatically. The demands on the new technologies are exacting. MEV-1 must head for the satellite in a controlled manner over a distance of 40 kilometers. When subsequently docking, the satellite must operate with an accuracy in the centimeter range. And last but not least, it has to withstand the adversities of space, such as extreme temperatures. Once it has fulfilled its tasks, MEV-1 can undock and carry out work on another satellite.

MEV-1 is equipped with a new sensor and camera system from Jena-Optronik. Similar sensors are currently also being tested in the automotive industry. The sensor from Jena can process huge amounts of 3D image data in real time with the help of AI-based algorithms and thus capture the structure and precise position of a satellite. It is able to guide MEV-1 in a controlled manner to satellites that were not originally intended for docking and are therefore not equipped with the necessary approach aids.


RVS3000-3D (Photo: Jena-Optronik)

Key technology for space travel of the future
The sensors and MEV-1 are world premieres. It is the first sensor to deliver 3D scans from a satellite in geostationary orbit – i.e. 36,000 kilometers above the earth. And MEV-1 is the first mission where a repair robot docks to an unknown satellite.

The new technologies will open the doors to previously unthinkable missions that have so far only been possible in science fiction movies. The vision: A fleet of service satellites is ready to repair aging satellites, correct their position, or – if they have reached the end of their service life – dismantle and dispose of them.


On the way to electric flight – 3D printing for cool batteries

The 3D-printed channels on the innovative APWORKS cooling plates

The battery in the currently planned electric aircraft heats up to 85 °C (185 °F) – heat that has to be discharged and cooled to prevent the battery from overheating. APWORKS has developed an innovative cooling plate that takes over this task. The plate is a good half a meter wide and three quarters of a meter high. It contains a labyrinth of channels a few millimeters thin, in which heated coolant is transported and cooled by means of a heat exchanger.

Additive manufacturing as game changer

The idea itself is not entirely new. Similar cooling plates are used, for example, in computer centers or in large generators. But the cooling plates developed by APWORKS are manufactured using 3D printing and are particularly suitable for e-flight – the process creates channels that can be arranged in a completely flexible manner compared to conventional cooling plates and can thus discharge significantly more heat. This increase in efficiency is absolutely essential for the enormous energy requirements in aircraft.

The second major advantage, which is decisive for success in e-flight in particular, concerns weight. The innovative plates are a good 20 percent lighter, thanks to 3D-printing technology; the entire channel system including cavities can be created in one go. With conventional methods such as milling, individual units must be produced, which then have to be welded and sealed, resulting in a high weight. What's more, components that are produced in just one production step require less time-consuming quality testing – saving considerable cost.

Another building block for e-flight

The new cooling plates have already proven themselves in test flights with smaller electric aircraft. They are an important component in ensuring that passenger aircraft can one day take off fully or partly electrically and ensure a better climate footprint for air traffic.

APWORKS works closely with its parent company Premium Aerotec on development and testing. The technologies are used in Airbus' E-Aircraft Systems division – and also secure European expertise in terms of additive manufacturing.

Reduce CO2 sitting down

The new economy-class seat sets new standards in terms of lightness.

With a total weight of 8 kilograms, the new SL3710 economy-class seat sets new standards in lightweight construction. Its predecessor weighed 9.3 kilograms. The weight reduction is achieved by innovative further developments to the seat upholstery, seat shell and seat structure. This includes, for example, optimizing material usage. Since the seat shell is already formed ergonomically, a lighter seat upholstery can be used without the seat sacrificing comfort. In addition, the new seat offers more space per passenger thanks to a slimmer backrest design, thus increasing seating comfort.


The seat offers more space per passenger thanks to a slimmer backrest design


Efficient maintenance as well

What's more, airlines benefit from low costs throughout the lifecycle of the new seat. The seat is optimized for a predefined angle of inclination. This eliminates the need for an adjustable backrest, which contains many wearing parts. Not only does this cut maintenance costs by half, but the seat also lasts much longer.

Recaro, as a leading manufacturer of aircraft seats, has always invested in innovation and research, developing lighter seats with longer lives. The new seat is one of many solutions that Recaro has introduced to significantly reduce aircraft weight, save fuel and set a new environmental standard for the industry.

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