Levitating ‘space furnace’ bound for Space Station

25 March 2014 | By Stephen Harris

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will this summer get to play with a “space furnace” that can levitate samples of metal.

German researchers hope to use the electromagnetic levitator (EML) to learn more about alloy materials by studying them a microgravity environment, where they won’t separate into their constituent metals when melted, as would happen on Earth.

The EML uses an electromagnetic field to heat the metal samples but also to suspend them in mid-air so they can be studied without any interference from a container.

Dr Christoph Pütz, director of microgravity payloads at Airbus Defence and Space, which developed the EML, said the system would help scientists study ‘the essential material properties you cannot determine very precisely on the ground’.

‘Thermoconductivity, viscosity, diffusion coeffient and things like that,’ he said. ‘Those parameters are important for predicting behaviour in casting processes, for example.’

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Source: Airbus Defence and Space

Metal samples will be held in cages of rhenium wire before being levitated by electromagnetic fields.

Scientists have actually been conducting similar experiments for decades as access to microgravity environments grew, from the 20 seconds of weightlessness provided by parabolic flights through the atmosphere to several weeks aboard the space shuttle.

The Airbus team developed the EML as a way for researchers at the German Aerospace Centre’s User Control Centre in Cologne to control and monitor experiments aboard the ISS over a much greater period of time while themselves remaining on the Earth.

The 360kg-system comprises a vacuum chamber with a magazine of up to 18 spherical metal samples. When a sample is being studied it is fed into a wire cage in the vacuum chamber until the electromagnetic field is switched on, which then levitates the sample so that it is freely suspended but held precisely in position to avoid interference by any external disturbances.

Another field then heats the sample (by inducing electric currents in it) to close to 2,000°C and a high-speed data camera captures up to 30,000 images a second as it melts and then re-solidifies once the heating field is deactivated.

As well as shrinking the technology to make it suitable for the ISS, the Airbus team had to build a diagnostic system to allow the EML to be controlled and monitored in real time by the scientists on the Earth.

‘The most challenging thing we had to master was the safety aspects,’ said Pütz. ‘The samples are at very high temperatures and have to be contained, and you have an evaporation effect from the sample … that is toxic and a hazard to the crew. So we have to implement a dedicated container that shut downs electronically if something happens.’

Another challenge was developing sample-holding cage, which had to be made of very thin wires so that it wouldn’t obstruct the camera’s view of the samples but also had to withstand very high temperatures and so was made from rhenium, which itself creates challenges for welding.

The EML and the first batch of samples is due to be sent to the ISS on the European resupply spacecraft ATV-5 and is expected to operate until at least 2020.

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Computer game technology leads to augmented reality composites guides

21 March 2014 | By Jason Ford

Technology used by computer games enthusiasts is being employed in a project to digitise laminate lay-up processes in aerospace composites manufacturing.

The three-year project, funded with a £430,000 Technology Strategy Board grant, aims to develop a system that can be sold SMEs at a competitive price.

In the interim, elements of gaming technology will be used by Airbus to assist with off-site field work and to train staff working on composite assemblies.

Simon Astwood, research leader of Airbus Group Innovations’ Digital Factory, explained that the overall objective is to develop a system that represents simulated design for manufacturing that can be applied to conceptual design and eventually to products that are more focussed on manufacturing and production.

He told The Engineer: ‘We’re taking the [Microsoft] Kinect controller – just the camera system because its USB operated – and connecting it to a standard Windows laptop and running our own C-Sharp programme on top of that that let’s us use the…skilled worker as an input device.’

The first demonstrator developed by the project focussed on very low cost composite repair work flow.

’If you’re building anything with composites in an Airbus factory you’re likely to have hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of laser projection equipment around you, and a very purpose built infrastructure to support you. But if you’re doing repairs in the field [then you’re] not going to have access to calibrated laser projectors.

’We’re trying to see if we can…create an augmented reality for a worker. The idea would be that they go up to an in situ repair with a normal powerpoint projector, something you’d use in the office, mounted on a tripod with a Kinect and we would project…additional information into their work space…and use the gestures of the workers to control that system.

‘What you end with is a system that costs around £300, is completely portable and run off a portable power supply and allows a worker to navigate through a process flow displaying extra information and taking photos of their work as they progress.’

The project has since moved forward with a bespoke solution for workers at Airbus’ Harbin facility in China which has borrowed from gaming software to create complex training scenarios designed to improve the competence of staff working with high-value products.

‘What we’re doing is [creating] a computer game where the worker will invent their own process flow,’ said Astwood. ’It could be something simple like installing stiffening brackets onto a spar for the tailplane section or the rudder.

’What we do in the game is give them all the raw materials and tools that they’ll need and we ask them to go through the build of a spar, or assemble a component without following an instruction. They’re given a score and the idea is that it turns the training into more of an exploration: they compete in this gaming environment to improve their scores and once they’ve achieved a certain score they’re then ready to go out into production and be tested on real parts and real components.

‘Our theory behind it is if a worker is incentivised to explore and try different techniques in a digital environment [then it] has no negative impact on the production flow, no negative impact by consuming raw materials that are very expensive. But it does allow them to experience a bit of ’learning by doing.’

The project is being conducted with Cranfield University and Aertec, a multinational consultancy and engineering firm specialising in aeronautics that opened a new office in Bristol at the start of 2013 as part of its wider expansion into the UK market.

Astwood explained that in the context of the project, Airbus devises a viable manufacturing scenario that Cranfield University then develops into a proof of concept. Aertec then takes the final product to market.

‘What we want to…do is take everything that we’re learning on an Airbus use case and push that back out into the UK economy,’ said Astwood. ‘Local suppliers will be able to benefit from a low-cost system that costs a few hundred pounds rather than buying tens of thousands of pounds worth of laser projection where its just not realistic…most small laminating shops that have got a specific, difficult assembly to build aren’t going to have the same resources as [a larger company] to very high-fidelity, realistic modelling.’

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