Interview with INNOspace Masters Winner 2017: Next Level Glass Fibre Sensors

MT Aerospace AG has developed some of the space industry ‘s largest carbon fibre-reinforced plastics (CFRP) components, mainly for solid rocket boosters, such as those used for ARIANE6. Measuring around 12 metres in length and 3.4 metres in diameter, these parts are manufactured using a vacuum infusion process. During this process, dry carbon fibres are wound around a mould and are then impregnated with resin.

Intelligent sensors are needed to monitor the flow front of the resin as it is infused in order to optimise the overall process. For this purpose, MT Aerospace AG is working with Fraunhofer LBF on incorporating glass fibre sensors into its components during the winding phase. For infusion, each component is placed inside an oven, where it slowly rotates during the process. This delicate step is where the sensors monitor the distribution of the resin.

What are the benefits?

  • Digitised manufacturing optimises the process while reducing costs
  • Visualisation of previously hidden processes and corresponding digital controls provide for increased process stability
  • Information gained from sensors makes it possible to automate the flow of resin and ensure quality and repeatability
  • Process data also improves control and accelerates ramp-up to serial production, which makes the company more competitive

Martin Lehmann from Fraunhofer LBF, together with MT Aerospace as a collaboration partner, took third place in the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Challenge of the INNOspace Masters 2017.

In the following short Interview, Martin Lehmann (ML) from Fraunhofer LBF and Patrick Starke (PS) from MT Aerospace AG explain their project “Infusion 4.0”. They are interviewed by Matthias Engler (ME), Content Manager with AZO. Learn more about how the INNOspace Masters kick-started their research idea and why the INNOspace Masters Awards Ceremony and conference on 5 June 2018 is a must-attend event.

ME: Incorporating glass fiber sensors into components sounds pretty amazing and difficult. Please tell us more about your project “Infusion 4.0”.

ML: Before Infusion 4.0, we integrated fibre-optic sensors to monitor the structural properties of aircraft components in European projects. The technology was tested in ground and flight tests. We are now monitoring the structure while it is being produced. The idea is to enable a digital model of a critical process step that has not been visible until now. While this project focuses only on process monitoring, the sensor technology can offer much more potential for complete life-cycle monitoring later on.

PS: We produce huge CFRP components with a wall thickness of a few centimetres and a weight of several tonnes. After the dry fibres are deposited, the infusion of the resin is completed in one go. At the moment, we can only check whether all fibres are surrounded by resin after the process. Within Infusion 4.0, we want to place sensor fibres in different positions between the carbon fibres to detect the flow front in situ during the infusion process. The process risk will thus be reduced significantly.

ME: How did you benefit from working with the DLR Space Administration as operator and challenge partner?

ML: We are very grateful for the chance to get the funding for such a new idea. Obviously, research projects cannot guarantee success. Having DLR as a challenge partner means high public visibility and fruitful support and coaching, especially for partners who do not have that much experience in space projects.

PS: MT Aerospace has a long and fruitful relationship with DLR due to its role as the largest German supplier to the Ariane programme. We highly appreciate the straightforward, aim-oriented and helpful cooperation that has lasted many years.

ME: What are the next big steps in this research project?

ML: The project started in October 2017. We are now focusing on selecting suppliers to enable the flow front to be detected on a basic structure. Next year, we will showcase the technology on a more realistic component. We are interested in discussing our concept with the scientific and industrial communities in certain publications and on conferences.

PS: The first basic structure will be a simple plate where we can check and evaluate the method. After we succeed with that, we plan to apply the sensor technology on a bigger three-dimensional part.

ME: In your opinion, which technologies and trends will have the biggest impact on your industry within the next years?

ML: Industry 4.0 is a challenge as well as an opportunity. It enables a combination of approaches from the high-tech industry with more conservative industries such as aerospace or mechanical engineering. It is very important to be open to this trend and have an understanding of the other groups involved that come from a mechanical, electrical or IT background.

PS: New, privately-owned companies such as Space X and Blue Origin, with their rapid development speed and recent successes, will certainly have the biggest impact on the space industry. In terms of technology, CFRP materials are becoming more and more important due to the need for lighter and cheaper launch vehicles.

ME: How will these trends in technologies affect your value proposition in the near future?

ML: IT experts working on industry 4.0 create remarkable models of reality and analyse large volumes of data to improve production and maintenance processes – if someone can provide this data. The integration of sensors is essential to generate data on critical production processes and offers greater potential in future projects. Sensorised structures make Industry 4.0 possible. We are developing methods to efficiently integrate sensors or other functions in lightweight structures.

PS: MT Aerospace meets these challenges to retain its market position and explore new business areas. The focus lies on CFRP and other lightweight materials as well as enhanced or new design and production methods.

ME: Congratulations for taking third place in the INNOspace Masters DLR Challenge 2017. You remember that moment on stage receiving your award. What makes the Awards Ceremony and conference so special?

ML: Obviously, we mostly focused on the Awards Ceremony at the end of the conference. Nevertheless, this was a very interesting event with high-ranking speakers from the space industry, although there were very interesting keynotes from other industries as well. I would highly recommend attending this event.

PS: The Awards Ceremony and conference took place at Humboldt Carré in Berlin. Dr. Gruppe handed the award to us. At that moment, the whole team felt very proud. The award shows that DLR and other aerospace experts believe in our idea. We got the chance to present our idea to many important people in the German aerospace industry and economy and took the opportunity to get in touch with the other winners from different institutes and companies to exchange and discuss ideas.

ME: Do you have any advice for future INNOspace Masters participants?

ML: The INNOspace Masters is a good opportunity for scientific and industrial teams to suggest new approaches for future space-related topics. The competition is a particularly important opportunity for teams who have no previous experience in space projects. This is because these partnerships create new technologies and business models for the space industry.

PS: Make the most of the opportunity! If you have new and unconventional ideas, you have an ideal platform to gain attention from a broad audience and a chance for further development.

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