Titel Luftfahrt
Innenansicht ZAL © MLindner

Research in ZAL to provide 3D printing and Industry 4.0 for Hamburg's aviation industry

New production technologies, advances in automation and improvements in the repair and maintenance of aircraft

The Centre for Applied Research in Aviation (ZAL) in Hamburg opened its doors Monday and ZAL is probably one of the most advanced aviation research institutes worldwide. Located near Airbus on Hamburg’s Finkenwerder island, ZAL provides the aviation industry in Hamburg and elsewhere as well as academic institutions with facilities for joint projects.

Emerging technologies such as 3D printing and Industry 4.0 will play a major role in these future endeavours. Their main focus will be on new production technologies, advances in automation and on improvements in the repair and maintenance of aircraft.

Up to 60 per cent lighter

3D printing technologies add extremely thin layers atop others to create the finished product. This allows shapes to be created that are normally impossible to reproduce or only at exorbitant costs when using conventional technologies. A computer using digital blueprints controls the printer. The printing process uses one or a variety of materials usually either plastic, ceramics or metals. Thanks to 3D printing, small series or even single items can be made to order at reasonable prices as digital blueprints can be modified without having to produce new moulds or machine tools. Moreover, 3D printing consumes less material and energy. And aircraft parts produced by 3D printers can be up to 60 per cent lighter than conventionally produced parts. This in turn saves weight aboard aircraft thus reducing fuel consumption and yielding a more ecological product.

Emulated leaf structure

Moreover, 3D printing enables aviation engineers to use solutions found in nature as a starting point for their designs. Last year, researchers at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in cooperation with their colleagues at Airbus showed what such a product could look like. They devised a system of flaps modelled on a Venus flytrap that closes its leaves to catch its prey. Layers of flexible cells, which are filled with pressurized air, duplicate the structures inside the leaves, thus enabling the wing to change its shape. In 2013, a design presented by Airbus used a bird’s hollow bone as a model for an aircraft fuselage. The design proved more stable than a conventional fuselage.

Supple and flexible

The aircraft industry hopes to use Industry 4. 0 technologies to boost productivity with increased production capabilities. This would enable Airbus, for instance, to increase the rate of aircraft production. However, many airliners’ components are still assembled manually and this poses a major obstacle. Other industries work with a higher degree of automation. Industry 4.0 will push the envelope even further by connecting individual machines with each other, thus digitalizing entire production lines. Each part can be traced in real time. Faulty components can be identified and replaced faster, thus creating a more flexible logistical system.

In view of the stable growth in the aviation industry, these issues are vital for Hamburg’s aviation community. A study presented last year by the Hamburg Institute for the Study of the Global Economy (HWWI) estimated that Industry 4.0 would generate an EUR1.3 billion in annual added value by 2025.

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