Category Archives: Aerospace

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.’

/r/g/t/Airbus_space_furnace_1.jpg

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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Ceramic nanoparticle coating protects aero engines from heat

21 March 2014

Researchers at University West in Sweden are using nanoparticles in the heat-insulating surface layer that protects aircraft engines from heat.

In tests, this is said to have increased the service life of the coating by 300 per cent and it is hoped that components with the new thermal barrier coating will be in production within two years.

To increase the service life of aircraft engines, a heat-insulating surface layer is sprayed on top of the metal components. The goal of the University West research group was to control the structure of the surface layer in order to increase its service life and insulating capability.

The thermal barrier coating is manufactured using thermal spray application, whereby a ceramic powder is sprayed onto a surface at a very high temperature –7,000 to 8,000 degrees C – using a plasma stream. The ceramic particles melt and strike the surface, where they form a protective layer that is approximately half a millimetre thick.

‘The base is a ceramic powder, but we have also tested adding plastic to generate pores that make the material more elastic,’ said Nicholas Curry, who has presented his doctoral thesis on the subject.

The ceramic layer is subjected to stress due to changes in temperature that make the material alternately expand and contract. Making the layer elastic became paramount and over the last few years the researchers have focused on further refining the microstructure in order to make the layer useful for industry.

‘We have tested the use of a layer that is formed from nanoparticles. The particles are so fine that we aren’t able to spray the powder directly onto a surface. Instead, we first mix the powder with a liquid that is then sprayed. This is called suspension plasma spray application,’ Curry said in a statement.

Curry and his colleagues have since tested the new layer thousands of times in thermal shock tests to simulate the temperature changes in an aircraft engine. Results showed that the new coating layer lasts at least three times as long as a conventional layer while it has low heat conduction abilities.

‘An aircraft motor that lasts longer does not need to undergo expensive, time-consuming service as often; this saves the aircraft industry money. The new technology is also significantly cheaper than the conventional technology, which means that more businesses will be able to purchase the equipment,’ said Curry.

One of the most important issues for the researchers to solve is how they can monitor what happens to the structure of the coating over time, and to understand how the microstructure in the layer works.

‘A conventional surface layer looks like a sandwich, with layer upon layer. The surface layer we produce with the new method can be compared more to standing columns. This makes the layer more flexible and easier to monitor. And it adheres to the metal, regardless of whether the surface is completely smooth or not. The most important thing is not the material itself, but how porous it is,’ said Curry.

The research was conducted in collaboration with GKN Aerospace and Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery.

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The Engineer Q&A: Space debris

19 March 2014

Your chance to question our expert panel about dealing with the space debris that orbits Earth.

The threat posed by the millions of pieces of debris orbiting the Earth to our now-crucial space infrastructure has been a growing concern of scientists and engineers and, increasingly, the wider public for a number of years now. It’s even become the topic of an Oscar-winning film.

But while plenty of ideas have been put forward as ways to clean up our space junkyard, no mission has yet been confirmed to put any of them into action. There’s not even an international treaty to minimise the creation of space debris.

For the latest of our reader Q&As, send us your questions about the technical and practical challenges of dealing with this pressing problem and we’ll have a panel of experts in the field provide answers.

Some of the ideas for removing pieces of space debris include:

  • rounding them up with a large, passive sky sweeper;
  • capturing them with a tractor beam;
  • grabbing them with a harpoon or mechanical claw;
  • using lasers to shoot them out of orbit;
  • equiping new satellites with sails to pull them out of orbit when their mission is over.

Use the comments box below to send us your questions about any of the technologies above or about the topic in general by the end of Thursday and we’ll publish the responses in the next issue of The Engineer magazine and here on the website.

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Barometer indicates more fair weather for England’s SMEs

25 February 2014

SMEs in England are set to embark on a major investment drive in order to meet expected new demand, according to a new survey.

The latest Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) Barometer’s special focus found that 86 per cent of respondents were planning to invest in capital equipment over the next twelve months, with companies looking to spend an average of £121,000.

With over 80,000 firms making up the English SME manufacturing community, this could equate to hundreds of millions of fresh industry investment between now and 2015.

Two thirds of the firms questioned are looking to purchase new plant and machinery, just over half are focused on upgrading IT/communications infrastructure, and nearly a third on improving premises.

The main reasons driving these investment plans were boosting efficiency and quality (31 per cent), followed by developing new products/processes (30 per cent) and extending existing capacity (22 per cent).

Fewer than one in five companies (19 per cent) said they planned to approach banks to fund capital equipment purchases in the next year, with manufacturers instead choosing to secure money via grants (27 per cent) and the Regional Growth Fund (21 per cent).

A record 864 SME manufacturers responded to the latest MAS Barometer, which provides an overview of economic conditions and issues faced by the sector during October to December 2013.

A total of 62 per cent of companies reported an increase in sales over the last six months (a 6 per cent rise on the last report), whilst over three quarters of businesses (76 per cent) expect to boost sales between now and June 2014.

In a statement, Steven Barr, Head of MAS, said: ’There is a definite feel good factor around English manufacturing at the moment and these latest figures reinforce positive reports from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) together with encouraging Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data.’

For the first time since the national Barometer launched in 2012, more than half (53 per cent) of English manufacturers are expecting to take staff on over the next six months, marking a 14 per cent rise on the previous report.

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£10m boost for advanced materials research

12 February 2014

Projects are underway in the UK to find safer, sustainable alternatives to rare, expensive, and difficult to source raw materials used by industry.

Funded with a £10.3m grant from EPSRC and £2.8m from industry, the universities of Bristol, Surrey, York and UCL are to lead projects to asses the viability of using different, replacement materials in the manufacturing supply chain, considering their properties, cost, performance, and scalability.

They will investigate how production processes or technology will need to adapt to using these newer materials. It is claimed that by the end of the study manufacturers will be able to adopt alternatives.

In a statement David Willetts, minister for universities and science said: ‘As one of the eight great technologies of the future, advanced materials will ensure safer and more sustainable development of resources to boost the capability of UK manufacturing.

‘This investment in research will help keep the UK ahead in the global race for exciting manufacturing innovations.’

UCL will lead a project looking at alternatives for transparent conducting oxide materials used in window coatings, solar power panels, phones and computers, from nanoparticle dispersions, inks and thin films. Researchers will replace tin, which is expensive and indium, which is scarce, with common elements like titanium, aluminium and zinc.

In Bristol, researchers will develop new active materials for photovoltaic solar cells based on abundant and low cost elements. The research aims at replacing key elements such as gallium, indium, cadmium and tellurium, while implementing processes compatible with large-scale manufacturing.

Surrey researchers will look at the synthesis and processing of alternative thermoelectric and piezoelectric materials used in sensors, actuators and energy harvesters; whilst at York, research will investigate waste biomass and waste CO2 to replace petrochemical feedstocks in the manufacture of polymers.

David Delpy, chief executive, EPSRC said:  ‘Through the development and deployment of improved materials, processes and products that will come from this research, UK industries will be able to create wealth and new jobs, whilst at the same time tackling the societal and environmental challenges that resulted from the use of the original materials which were often rare and difficult to refine.’

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Taranis test flights to inform design of future combat aircraft

5 February 2014

The most advanced aircraft ever built by British engineers has successfully completed its first flights.

Taranis, an unmanned aerial combat vehicle designed and built by a team comprising BAE Systems, Qinetiq, GE Aviation, Rolls-Royce, and DE&S, was flown for the first time at an undisclosed test range on Saturday 10th August 2013.

Made possible with joint funding worth £185m from industry and the Ministry of Defence, the stealthy unmanned combat system has been designed to demonstrate the feasibility of a long-range unmanned aircraft capable of precision strikes, plus sustained surveillance, marking targets, and intelligence gathering.

Taranis taxiing at BAE Systems, Warton, Lanacashire

Source: BAE Systems

Taranis taxiing at BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs

‘This is the most advanced air system yet conceived, designed and built in the UK and its vitally important for the future of both UK air defence and the UK defence industry,’ said Philip Dunne, minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology.

Piloted by BAE Systems’ test pilot Bob Fraser, Taranis is said to have made a perfect take-off, rotation, ‘climb-out’ and landing on its first 15 minute flight. According to BAE Systems, a number of flights took place in 2013, of up to one hour in duration and at a variety of altitudes and speeds. 

News that Taranis had made its initial flights was announced today at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London.

Speaking at the event, Philip Dunne, minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology said: ‘We’re already thinking about what technology developments might follow [the 5th generation Joint Strike Fighter]

‘Those aircraft may need to operate in contested airspace behind enemy lines. They may be unmanned but the technology we’ve gained on the Taranis technology demonstrator keeps the UK in a strong position as we tackle that challenge, particularly in developing technologies such as low observability. 

‘The evidence gained from the flights so far is already helping to inform future combat aircraft capability.’

[embedded content]

Source: BAE Systems

The most advanced aircraft ever built by British engineers has successfully completed its first flights

Taranis was built with the help of 250 UK companies and will help inform future decisions on the future mix of manned and unmanned fast jet aircraft in theatre.

BAE Systems said in a statement that initial ground testing commenced in 2010 at its facility in Warton, followed by a programme of pre-first flight milestones including unmanned pilot training, radar cross section measurements, ground station system integration and taxi trials.

The aircraft and its ground station were then shipped from Warton to the test-range before being re-assembled and being subject to systems and diagnostics checks. Taranis then made a number of high speed taxi tests in July before its maiden flight in August 2013.

[embedded content]

Source: BAE Systems

Taranis will help inform future decisions on the future mix of manned and unmanned fast jet aircraft in theatre

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Trade body calls for further tax breaks to boost UK aerospace

5 February 2014 | By Jason Ford

Britain’s commercial aerospace industry can sustain and build on its global market share with a three-pronged set of measures aimed at improving tax incentives.

Paul Everitt, chief executive of trade body ADS, believes these measures will build on work that has so far helped the industry gain a 17 per cent foothold in the global commercial aerospace market which grew by 28 per cent in 2013.

ADS estimates demand for 60,000 new aircraft worth over $5 trillion in the next 20 years and Everitt believes joint government-industry initiatives such as the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) are providing the right incentives for investors.

Everitt told The Engineer that Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus Group, and Fabrice Brégier, president and CEO of Airbus, have independently confirmed that action being taken in the UK is positively influencing investment decisions here.

‘We imagine…that in the coming months, and the rest of this year, we will see further indications that major global players are looking anew at the UK and their investment opportunities here,’ he said.

Jeegar Kakkad, director of policy and chief economist at ADS agreed that government sees the long-term benefits to the economy of aerospace in terms of innovation, exports and higher-paid jobs, but Everitt believes further measures are needed to make the UK more attractive, with the Treasury having a pivotal role in this.

The UK’s R&D tax credit regime currently provides a 10 per cent credit against allowable expenditure, a figure Everitt wants to see steadily increased.

He said: ‘In Europe there are good examples of R&D tax credit regimes of 13-15 per cent, and globally around 18-20 per cent…a commitment over time to ensure that the R&D tax credit regime is made globally competitive, in the same way that he [the chancellor] has made a commitment around corporation tax…would be incredibly significant.’

25% of the value of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is made in the UK, the largest proportion outside of the USA

25% of the value of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is made in the UK, the largest proportion outside of the USA

Furthermore, March 2013 saw the publication of ‘Lifting Off – Implementing the Strategic Vision for UK Aerospace’ in which AGP acknowledged the difficulties encountered by SMEs at the start of a period of potential growth.

‘Very often growing demand is quite challenging.’ said Everitt. ‘You need much more cash – your cash flow gets impacted because you need to buy more raw materials, buy more labour. Payment terms are not necessarily going to be wholly matching up, so there’s a cash flow implication. There is also a need…[for] new plant machinery and suchlike.’

To overcome these hurdles, Everitt believes the current annual investment allowance – which raised the maximum annual investment allowance from £25,000 to £250,000 until 2015 – should be extended too.

He said this would give SMEs the appropriate encouragement to invest in new plant and machinery and improve cash flow as certain corporation tax liabilities can be offset through the capital allowance regime.

Further tax incentives could be provided for companies wanting to build new facilities, given that the UK is the only OECD and G20 nation that doesn’t have a specific tax allowance for new building facilities.

‘We think that’s one area that would demonstrate that we in the UK were doing everything we could to encourage existing investors to invest in new buildings but also potentially new entrants to the market,’ he said.

Pending these reforms, Everitt said the first priority is for the UK to sustain its market share in a growing global market where Kakkad sees further opportunities supplying nations looking to grow their domestic capabilities.

‘Clearly over time we would like to think that we could grow our market share,’ said Everitt. ‘But we shouldn’t be fooling ourselves that that’s going to be an easy ask.’

20% of each Airbus aircraft is made in the UK

20% of each Airbus aircraft is made in the UK

Established and emerging markets will provide opportunities and challenges for the Britain and an initiative launched by ADS aims to highlight activity in the global market, and the UK’s success within it.

According to Everitt, the recently launched Commercial Aircraft and Engine Orders and Deliveries report is designed to remind industry of the opportunities for the UK within the sector.

Maintaining a steady supply of aerospace engineers is another motive for producing the report.

‘That is one of the reasons why we are quite keen to send these signals about the growth in civil aerospace: to reassure students – and often their parents – that a career in aerospace and aerospace manufacturing is going to be a long-term and rewarding one.’

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BAE Systems and MoD extend Typhoon agreement

30 January 2014

BAE Systems and the UK Ministry of Defence have agreed to extend the Typhoon Availability Service (TAS) for the in-service support of the RAF’s Typhoon fleet by 12 months until the end of 2014.

Under the £100m TAS contract, BAE Systems is responsible for delivering Typhoon aircrew and ground crew training, maintenance and the servicing of the aircraft, providing technical support and managing spares, repairs and logistics.

BAE Systems supports the fleet at RAF Coningsby, RAF Leuchars and the Falkland Islands.

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Chancellor announces £60m investment in aerospace

17 January 2014

The chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne has announced £60m of new funding for the development of new aerospace technology at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry. 

The government will provide £30m in funding, which will be matched by industry.

In a statement the chancellor said: ‘Up to 27,000 new planes are needed between now and 2030, worth billions of pounds to the UK economy in contracts. That is why I am announcing…that, together with industry, we will invest around £60m in a dedicated facility for aerospace manufacturing as part of £2bn of support for this growing sector.’

The chancellor made the announcement yesterday, January 16, 2013 at a visit to the Manufacturing Technology Centre, part of the government’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres that promote high-end manufacturing in the UK.

The aerospace facility will allow companies to develop new materials such as lightweight carbon fibre for use in planes, jet engines and civil helicopters that will be exported globally. The funding will also support the creation of a national centre for Additive Manufacturing to develop new products for aero-engines and aircraft landing gears, as well as automotive and medical devices.

This investment is part of the £2bn of joint government and industry funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute that will be invested in the sector over the next seven years. 

Dick Elsy, chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult said: ‘This is a very exciting time for manufacturing in the UK. In the two years since its formation, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is set to exceed its targets in terms of the investment generated from industry, the projects secured and the collaborative R&D delivered.

‘It is clear that industry recognises and embraces the opportunities that we offer and this latest expansion of capability at the MTC is a tremendous new resource which will help the UK’s high value manufacturing sector – and the aerospace sector in particular – to continue to go from strength to strength.’

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