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Sustainable futures

COP26: re-writing the rules of aerospace manufacturing

Reducing the carbon footprint of the aviation industry starts long before a plane leaves the ground. In fact, it starts long before a plane becomes a plane.

If “jet zero” is to be achieved, every single part of the aviation manufacturing process must be scrutinised and overhauled - from the SMEs supplying the individual components, to the industry giants building the latest aircraft.

Researchers at the University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing are leading the way when it comes to studying the factories of the future, heading up a new £5m Centre for Smart and Connected Factories which is studying the way manufacturing must adapt to make the most of new technology and meet the challenges of the coming decades – not least climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

One of the biggest challenges in reducing the carbon footprint of aerospace will be bringing more of the manufacturing processes to UK shores. The UK is home to the world’s second largest aerospace sector, but many of the manufacturing processes remain overseas because it is cheaper.

Professor Svetan Ratchev, the Institute’s director, explains: “Currently, we are constrained by the materials and the availability of the logistic network. We want to bring more production back to the UK, that will make a massive difference – both to the environment and the economy.

“Moving towards more local production will not only help reduce the carbon footprint of the aviation industry but revitalise local regions, helping with the UK’s levelling up agenda.”

Much of this change will be dependent on maximising the use of new smart technologies, dubbed Industry 4.0 or “the fourth industrial revolution”.

“Smart technologies can allow us to manufacture cost effectively in variable volumes in the UK, which is currently a very high labour cost destination,” said Professor Ratchev.

The university currently has two large programmes focused on this.

Elastic Manufacturing is a £3m programme, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which is looking at how to increase elasticity, or flexibility, in the system, so that manufacturing can always operate at the optimum level, adapting, expanding or shrinking easily to meet demand.

It will look not only at the role of technology, but at the entire manufacturing supply chain, studying ways to improve connectivity, value for money and collaboration.

Professor Ratchev said: “This will have a massive impact on emissions and carbon reduction. “It makes manufacturing locally cost effective. We don’t have to go to the other side of the world and that dramatically reduces the cost of transportation and the emissions that come out.”

The university is also in the process of creating a new £3.8m digital demonstrator within the University’s Advanced Manufacturing Building.

The demonstrator will show how a traditional production line can be created in a single area, which can then transform itself and emulate different parts of the production process – something that is particularly important for the aerospace industry.

Professor Ratchev said: “It is cost effective to produce large volumes, but the aerospace customer wants smaller volumes and a variety of personalised products. This is a challenge with traditional manufacturing processes. By drastically reducing the whole footprint of a facility in this way you have a much more cost-effective solution.”

The demonstrator, which features state of the art robotics and automated guided vehicles, has been funded by the Made Smarter Innovation Challenge, part of the national Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It is expected to be operational by the end of 2021.

Professor Ratchev said: “It's a fully automated environment which incorporates a digital model and a physical system, so everything is validated and tested using a digital twin, which dramatically reduces the cost of any non-compliance.

“It’s going to look like a kind of a spaceship! We literally have space to put a small aircraft in. The facility can switch from, say, a part of a wing to part of a fuselage, and transform itself on demand.”

It has been developed in conjunction with industry partners including Airbus, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, and uses commercial technology already available so that companies can easily work with it.

It is not the first time the university has worked with BAE Systems. Professor Ratchev and his colleagues have previously helped the company develop an autonomous assembly demonstrator at its ‘Factory of the Future’ – an innovation hub in the north west of England which looks at how aircraft could be built in the future.

Professor Ratchev said: “We are rewriting the rules of manufacturing, which have been around for hundreds of years.

"We are rewriting the rules of manufacturing, which have been around for hundreds of years."
Svetan Ratchev

“We have a highly skilled team of around 30 people, a mixture of aerospace engineers, mechanical and manufacturing engineers and computer scientists. We use artificial intelligence, machine learning and digital communication at a very different level.”

A second project, focused on empowering SMEs to adapt digital manufacturing techniques, could also have huge implications for the aerospace industry – particularly in the Midlands, which is home to a large number of businesses that are part of the aviation supply chain.

Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is a programme with Cambridge University which helps SMEs to use low-cost technology to improve their shop floor processes.

Professor Ratchev said: “It’s about lowering the barriers and addressing any fears. We help to demystify technology and give people the chance to use it at very low risk. 75% of the employment in manufacturing is in SMEs so it’s vital that they are brought along on this journey.”

"75% of the employment in manufacturing is in SMEs so it’s vital that they are brought along on this journey."
Svetan Ratchev

Svetan Ratchev

Professor Svetan Ratchev, Cripps Professor of Production Engineering and Director of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, Faculty of Engineering. He also heads the Nottingham Centres for Aerospace Manufacturing and Precision Manufacturing.

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