Press/Media: Expert Comment


The aerospace industry has witnessed significant innovation in the past decade, with the wide spread adoption of composite materials, increasing automation in both product design and production, and growing supply chain complexity and globalisation.  The last five years have seen the first flight of many significant aircraft programmes which have been designed to meet challenging economic and environmental targets, creating more sustainable products to match the growing global demand for air travel.

The aerospace research team at Queen’s has been helping to drive this evolution – imagining and creating future design, analysis and manufacturing technologies.  Across a breath of applications and engineering disciplines two central objectives can be identified: how can we continue to make our engineers and organisations more productive, how can we make our products and processes more sustainable? Whether creating new tools to understand and design aircraft assembly procedures, or new approaches which can optimise and manage complex supply chains, productivity and sustainability are two key performance metrics which will continue to drive our innovation.

With over 60 years of aerospace research Queen’s has a global network of leading aerospace partners.  Top academic and research institutions, leading technology providers and of course the lead aerospace companies (Airbus, Bombardier, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce) are all current research partners. A key area of research strength is aerospace manufacturing, where Queen’s has led and participated in many major national and international research projects.  The School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering together with the Northern Ireland Technology Centre (NITC) has created an internationally recognised hub in manufacturing automation and simulation.  A key element in our success is having combined academic and commercial expertise, which enables us to take breakthrough research and technological concepts through the development and demonstration stages towards final commercialisation.

Queen’s has a worldwide reputation in Digital Manufacturing technology – tools which enable engineers to create manufacturing solutions through simulating virtual production environments.  We have established and demonstrated at an industrial level the potential to virtually optimise and verify aerospace production processes.  This technology is a direct enabler for ‘right-first-time’ production.  The development and demonstration of such technology has now made factory layout optimisation a core component within any aerospace development programme.  Research has also examined the impact of work instructions on operator learning and performance, enabling our research partners to adapt their operator instructions to reduce manufacturing times and product learning curves. In addition we have created novel software for production planning which has been adopted by two major aerospace companies, directly resulting in five and six figure savings in individual project development costs.

Considering manufacturing automation we have developed significant experience with robotics and in particular Parallel Kinematic Machines (PKMs) for both part production and complex assembly processes. Supported through major research grants, our research engineers have developed flexible machines and operational procedures to undertake some of the most challenging processes associated with aircraft assembly.  Our research has demonstrated through real-life industrial examples that PKMs are suitable for high precision manufacturing tasks. Significantly, accompanying economic analysis has determined potential cost savings of the order of 30% when compared to traditional manufacturing approaches.  The advanced automation technology having been validated through real-life industrial examples is now envisaged to be applied to aero-structure assembly in the near future.

Beyond direct manufacturing developments another major research expertise is the automation of engineering processes.  Funded through major national and European research programmes we have created methods which automatically allocate dimensional tolerances to the key characteristics of product assemblies.  The process allocates tolerances extremely quickly. Related research allows the direct calculation of how an individual design parameter needs to be updated to eliminate clash or interference.    Recent results demonstrate that it is also possible to automate these processes so that clashes or interferences can be automatically detected and eliminated in a real design cycle as a complex design is evolved.  Such technology is a stepping stone in the quest to create more intelligent design systems, aware of available or future manufacturing capabilities.

Finally it is worth considering the influence of manufacturing on the fundamental performance of an aircraft, its ability to fly.  Funded through a number of major grants we have sought to understand the influence of manufacturing processes and tolerances on aerodynamic drag.  For example mechanical fasteners can locally alter the contour of an aircraft’s surface and this can introduce undesirable air flow characteristics even at very small scales.  Combined wind tunnel experimental work and advanced computational models have enabled us to identify the sensitivity of drag to the positioning of fasteners and the shape of the individual surface depressions.  For industrial partners such understanding has informed the characteristics of future manufacturing solutions which are needed to achieve the aerodynamic performance of next generation aircraft.

Current projects are now building on these developed technologies, examining drilling and assembly methods for complex composite components, automating wide-ranging shop floor processes (e.g. non-conformance management) and generating a new generation of manufacturing simulation tools which can optimise processes, factories and supply chains considering a wide range of engineering, environmental and economic metrics.  In collaboration with our research partners such developments will enable us to continue our contribution to the next ten years of aerospace innovation.

Period01 May 2015 → 01 May 2015

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