European airliner manufacturer Airbus spends some €2-billion a year on research and development (R&D), research and technology (R&T) and innovation. Airbus is part of the larger Airbus Group and it is important to stress that this is the figure for the airliner company and not the group as a whole. (Airbus Group, previously EADS, also includes Airbus Defence & Space and Airbus Helicopters.)
Challenges identified by Airbus which require addressing by the company and the wider industry can be grouped into five self-explanatory categories: emerging economies, environmental concerns, security, scarce resources (especially fuel) and air traffic growth.
Obviously, the company is concerned with the development of new aircraft and introducing improvements to existing designs. The current new aircraft programme is the A350XWB family and five A350-900 (the first model of the new family) flight test and development aircraft are now flying. More than 2 000 flying hours have been accumulated so far in the flight test programme. Customer pilots have already flown the aircraft and proving flights with volunteer passengers are now under way. The aircraft is currently on schedule to enter revenue service later this year.
The major development programme for an existing aircraft type is the A320neo, the new-engine-option version of the A319, A320 and A321 members of the narrow-body A320 family. For the neo, customers will have the choice of either the Pratt&Whitney PW1100G-JM or the CFM LEAP-1 engine (both new power plants). The new version will cut fuel consumption by 15% (resulting in lower operating costs), increase payload by 2 t, add up to 500 more nautical miles in range and reduce engine noise and emissions.
The programme involves aerodynamic modifications as well as the fitting and proving of the new engines. However, the aerodynamic part of the programme has benefited from the development and fitting of sharklets (large, nearly vertical winglets) at the wingtips of the A320 family airliners. “The major flight physics of the modifications has already been tested on the sharklet aircraft, with some 250 flight hours,” said new-engine-option Project Flight Test Engineer Sandra Bour-Schaeffer at the recent Airbus Innovation Days 2014 media briefing. The programme will involve certifying six aircraft types (the A319, A320 and A321, each with two different engines) and require the use of eight development aircraft.
“There’s a substantial time period dedicated to maturity. It’s important to have an aircraft that is mature and comparable to the [A320] aircraft the customers have today,” she highlighted. “It’s not only us. It’s also the propulsion system that is being tested. We have prepared quite a lot. We are confident that we are ready for the first flight in September 2014.”
A possible future project would be a re-engining of the A330 wide-body airliner (the A330neo proposal is currently a study). And Emirates Airlines has even suggested that Airbus consider developing a A380neo version of its Superjumbo.
“Innovation is driven by product strategy,” stated executive VP: engineering Charles Champion in his presentation at the Innovation Days. Thanks the success of the A320neo programme – as of January there were 2 600 firm orders for the new type – Airbus will not need to develop a new narrow-body airliner until around 2030. But that still leaves a lot of room for R&D, R&T and innovation within the company. To this end, Airbus has nine technology streams. “We have to see which of these streams we can incorporate into our existing aircraft, and how.”
These technology streams are – new engines, aerodynamic efficiency, innovative structures, capabilities, air traffic management, connectivity, avionics and systems, alternative energy and manufacturing. Airbus, obviously, does not design or build engines, but it has to fit them to its aircraft (which involves avionics, structures and aerodynamics issues). For all these tech- nology streams, there are short-term, medium- term and long-term horizons.
Aerodynamic efficiency includes the development of sharklets (already done and in service), laminar flow and other concepts. In aerodynamics, laminar flow is a smooth flow of air over a wing; in reality, this is difficult to achieve over the entire wing. However, achieving laminar flow reduces drag and increases lift, reducing fuel consumption, lowering operating costs and probably increasing payload and/or range. Airbus hopes to be able to demonstrate laminar flow over the wing of an A340 wide-body airliner. Other concepts include developing a microstructured coating that would reduce friction between the aircraft skin and the airflow across it. This could reduce drag by up to 1.5%. Significant flight testing has been carried out; it could be applied to existing aircraft, but industrialisation is currently the challenge. Airbus is currently discussing the matter with the relevant supplier companies.
Innovative structures include such things in the short term as composites and new metallic technologies, in the medium term nanotechnology and in the long-term bionic structures. Champion warned that just because the A350 design is predominantly made up of composites, it does not automatically mean that the same will apply to all future designs.
Capabilities cover such things as, in the short term, improved testing systems and methods and, in the medium to long term, virtual design. Connectivity refers to the passenger’s own information and communication technology (ICT) wireless links through mobile phones, tablets, laptops and other devices. Short term, the aim is high speed connectivity, medium term, the objective is seamless personal connectivity and long term, the use of holographic technology.
Air traffic management (ATM) is concerned both with ground-based air traffic control, improved cockpits and better interface between aircraft and the ground. It includes Airbus’s participation in the Single European Sky ATM Research (Sesar) project and its US counterpart, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (better known as NextGen). Sesar aims to increase air transport capacity in Europe threefold while reducing delays, cutting commercial aviation’s environmental impacts by 10% and reducing ATM costs to airlines by at least 50%.
Avionics and systems include the greater use of electrical systems in aircraft, including use of electric motors in aircraft wheels to allow taxiing without the use of the engines (cutting both fuel expenditure and emissions). Other areas include improved mission management and human–machine interface systems, better air-ground communications and larger displays.
Alternative energy embraces biofuels and, later, fuel cells and, in the long term, “energy harvesting” (energy derived from ambient background, such as sunshine). This stream involves cooperation with other companies, especially in the energy sector.
When it comes to manufacturing, Airbus’s Innovation Team, set up about a year ago, is developing a concept it calls ‘Future Factory’ which was launched last year and is intended to bring major innovation to the factory floor and the manufacturing process. This will make use of such technologies as automation and robotics, big data analytics, ICT and connectivity (which the team refers to as ICT/connected objects), materials and three-dimensional (3D) printing.
“Three-dimensional printing is technology that is really wonderful because we can design and optimise parts as never before,” stressed Chief Innovation Officer Yann Barbaux. “It’s also a green technology, because it’s using less material. We can reduce by 95% the amount of material waste. You can print parts where you need them, when you need them.”
Big data analytics can optimise the maintenance and use of aircraft. Materials encompass both composites such as carbon fibre reinforced plastics and metal alloys. “We are working on light aluminium alloys, combined with 3D printing,” he reported. “ICT/ connected objects are part of the factory of the future.”
“In the coming 10 to 15 years, we’ll have no new major development programmes,” avered senior VP: manufacturing engineering Michel Roboam. “It is clearly important for us to improve our technologies but in a totally new way from the past. In the past, new programmes saw the introduction of new [manufacturing] technologies. Now, we have to introduce new technologies on existing programmes. We need to have an industrial system that can cope with the changes we introduce. Future Factory is a major project. We will implement, in the Future Factory programme, an incremental approach that brings improvements in the system.”
Future Factory aims to use automation and robotics to make work easier while increasing the quality of manufacture and reducing waste. Parts would be conveyed around the plant by automated vehicles. Anthropomorphic robots, under the direct control of workers using virtual reality technology (such as headsets), would execute assembly tasks in difficult-to-reach parts of an aircraft. They would also lift loads too heavy for a human. Airbus refers to these proposed robots as ‘cobots’, an acronym for ‘cooperative robot’. The company is currently developing such machines.
ICT/connected objects technology would allow workers to know where the parts they required were and to summon the vehicles carrying them when needed, as well as linking the worker to the cobot. Elsewhere, there would be greater use of latest-generation industrial robots and other automated machines for drilling, welding and bonding.
“This industry is dependent on highly skilled workers,” he affirmed. “We’re developing new technologies not to replace the blue collar [workers] but to support them. All the bricks of Future Factory already exist or are in development. All will be developed in 10 to 15 years. Starting over 20 years ago, we have been going through automation everywhere, as long as it gives the company better value. Wherever there is a business case, we [implement] automation, as long as quality is respected.”
South African Connection
Airbus has a global network of suppliers, so its R&D, R&T and innovation network is also global. And South Africa is part of that global network. South African institutions involved are the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of Pretoria (UP), the University of Stellenbosch (Stellenbosch) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), as well as the Air Traffic & Navigation Service (ATNS), the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), South African Airways (SAA) and private-sector aerospace company Aerosud and major petrochemicals group Sasol.
Airbus regards R&T as being focused on emerging technologies and processes. In this regard, it is cooperating with the CSIR on the effects of fuel sloshing on flight stability, on developing and applying new computational fluid dynamics for engineering design and on possible uses of blended natural fibres for aircraft cabin furnishings and components. It is also working with the CSIR/National Laser Centre and Aerosud on the titanium powder additive manufacturing of large aircraft components. With CPUT, Airbus is working on biocomposites, with UCT, on the aerodynamics of aircraft flying in close proximity, and, with the UP, on fluid-structure interaction.
R&T projects with Stellenbosch encompass advanced flight control systems, automatic control for air-to-air refuelling, and (jointly with CPUT) smart actuation for wings. With Wits, projects concern friction stir welding, titanium processing and manufacturing and laser shock peening (a surface treatment process that can improve damage tolerance on critical metal aerospace components such as engine compressor blades).
For Airbus, R&D involves the development, industrialisation and commercialisation of new technologies. The company has cooperated with Aerosud in developing manufacturing with carbon fibre thermoplastics, a process that has been successfully industrialised at the South African company.
Regarding innovation, more generally, Airbus has worked and continues to work with ATNS on autolanding trials and related aeroplane software development (at OR Tambo International Airport, east of Johannesburg). Previous projects have included autolanding trials using differential satellite navigation systems (at Mmabatho Airport, in the North West province) and magnetic interference tests on navigation equipment of aircraft flying over the South Pole. Airbus also collaborates with ATNS, the SACAA and SAA to design new approach and departure navigation procedures (and related airspace management), with the initial project in 2013 being for Cape Town International Airport.
In addition, the airliner manufacturer is working with Sasol in regard to alternative jet fuels. This includes supporting Sasol’s continued participation in the European Union’s (EU’s) Alpha-Bird research programme and in securing EU research Framework Programme 7 (better known as FP7) funding for this research.
With SAA, there is cooperation to obtain approval from the aviation authorities for increased Extended [range] Twin [engine] Operations (ETOPS) for the A330-200. The ETOPS prescribes the distance en route that an airline’s twin-engined aircraft must maintain to suitable diversionary airfields in the event of a single engine failure. It is critical for transoceanic flights or routes over desolate terrain. With Airbus’s support, SAA has just become the first airline to achieve 240-minute ETOPS clearance for the A330-200. The practical bene- fit is that the airline can now fly its A330-200s across the South Atlantic on routes that were previously only possible with four-engined aircraft because of the lack of suitable en-route diversion runways.
Airbus has also set up a bursary scheme for South African postgraduate students. South African interns have also been taken by Airbus to work on projects related to the European company.
“In the past, there’s not been a lot of cohesion between the different South African agencies – the departments of Science and Technology, Trade and Industry, the CSIR, universities and so on,” VP: international cooperation Simon Ward tells Engineering News. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen them come together, making it easier and more pleasant working with South Africa on innovation. My concern is not so much with developing the technology – South Africa has good researchers – but in commercialising it. South Africa wants to make aerospace parts, but the aerospace industry is a relatively small industry – like Formula 1, it drives innovation. South Africa must think bigger. How about a ‘Titanium Valley’, producing titanium products for every sector, from aerospace to golf clubs? We’re not quite there yet. That could attract a lot of foreign direct investment to South Africa. For example, when I go to Turkey, they have Free Trade Zones, which are very successful – no import tariffs (for a defined period of time) and other special provisions. Something like this in South Africa would be very successful.”
“Innovation is about change,” pointed out Barbaux at the Innovation Days. “Innovation is not only about new technologies but also about new ways of working. This is what we do – we embrace change. Innovation is also about the future. We have done a lot. We have still to do a lot more.”
• Campbell attended the Airbus Innovation Days 2014 in Toulouse, France, as a guest of the company.