Many research programmes have been derailed by the pandemic which has closed research laboratories or restricted groups of researchers from working together to solve complex problems. Some research teams have used their problem-solving skills to find new ways of collaborating and to continue to make progress. In the DIMES project we have developed an innovative system for detecting and monitoring the propagation of damage in aircraft structures, and prior to the pandemic, we were planning to demonstrate it on a full-scale test of an aircraft fuselage section at Airbus in Toulouse. However, the closure of our laboratories and travel restrictions across Europe have made it impossible for members of our team based in Liverpool, Chesterfield, Ulm and Zurich to meet or travel to Toulouse to set-up the demonstration. Instead we have used hours of screen-time in meetings to complete our design work and plan the installation of the system in Toulouse. These meetings often involve holding components up to our laptop cameras to show one another what we are doing. The components of the system were manufactured in various locations before being shipped to Empa in Zurich where they were assembled and the complete system was then shipped to Toulouse. At the same time, we designed a communication system that included a headset with camera, microphone and earpieces so that our colleague in Toulouse could be guided through the installation of our system by engineers in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Amazingly, it all worked and we were half-way through the installation last month when a rise in the COVID infection rate caused a shutdown of the Airbus site in Toulouse. What we need now is remote-controlled robot to complete the installation for us regardless of COVID restrictions; however, I suspect the project budget cannot afford a robot sufficiently sophisticated to replace our Most Valued Player (MVP) in Toulouse.
The DIMES project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 820951. The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
Image: Our Most Valued Player (inset) installing a point sensor in the front section of a fuselage at Airbus in Toulouse under the remote direction of engineers in Switzerland and the UK.
It is about 35 years since I graduated with my PhD. It was not ground-breaking although, together with my supervisor, I did publish about half a dozen technical papers based on it and some of those papers are still being cited, including one this month which surprises me. I performed experiments and computer modelling on the load and stress distribution in threaded fasteners, or nuts and bolts. There were no digital cameras and no computer tomography; so, the experiments involved making and sectioning models of nuts and bolts in transparent plastic using three-dimensional photoelasticity [see ‘Art and Experimental Mechanics‘ on July 17th, 2012]. I took hundreds of photographs of the sections and scanned the negatives in a microdensitometer. The computer modelling was equally slow and laborious because there were no graphical user interfaces (GUI); instead, I had to type strings of numbers into a terminal, wait overnight while the calculations were performed, and then study reams of numbers printed out on long rolls of paper. The tedium of the experimental work inspired me to work on utilising digital technology to revolutionise the field of experimental mechanics over the following 15 to 20 years. In the past 15 to 20 years, I have moved back towards computer modelling and focused on transforming the way in which measurement data are used to improve the fidelity of computer models and to establish confidence in their predictions [see ‘Establishing fidelity and credibility in tests and simulations‘ on July 25th, 2018]. Since completing my PhD, I have supervised 32 students to successful completion of their PhDs. You might think that was a straightforward process of an initial three years for the first one to complete their research and write their thesis, followed by one graduating every year. But that is not how it worked out, instead I have had fallow years as well as productive years. At the moment, I am in a productive period, having graduated two PhD students per year since 2017 – that’s a lot of reading and I have spent much of the last two weekends reviewing a thesis which is why PhD theses are the topic of this post!
We held the kick-off meeting for a new research project this week. It’s a three-way collaboration involving three professors based in Portugal, the UK and USA [Chris Sutcliffe, John Lambros at UIUC and me]; so, our kick-off meeting should have involved at least two of us travelling to the laboratory of the third collaborator and spending some time brainstorming about the challenges that we have agreed to tackle over the next three years. Instead we had a call via Skype and a rather procedural meeting in which we covered all of the issues without really engendering any excitement or sparking any new ideas. It would appear that we need the stimulus of new environments to maximise our creativity and that we use body language as well as facial expressions to help us reach a friendly consensus on which crazy ideas are worth pursuing and which should be quietly forgotten.
Our new research project has a long title: ‘Thermoacoustic response of Additively Manufactured metals: A multi-scale study from grain to component scales‘. In simple terms, we are going to look at whether residual stresses could be designed to be beneficial to the performance of structural parts used in demanding environments such as those found in reusable spacecraft, hypersonic flight vehicles and breeder blankets in fusion reactors. Residual stresses are often induced during the manufacture of parts and are usually detrimental to the performance of the part. Our hypothesis is that in additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, we have sufficient control of the manufacture of the part that we can introduce ‘designer stresses’ which will improve the part’s performance in demanding environments. The research is funded jointly by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK and is supported by The MTC and Renishaw plc; you can find out more at Grants on the Web. The research will be building on our recent research on ‘Potential dynamic buckling in hypersonic vehicle skin‘ [posted July 1st, 2020] and earlier work, see ‘Hot stuff‘ on September 13th, 2012. While the demanding environment is not new to us, we will be using 3D printed parts for the first time instead of components made by conventional (subtractive) machining and taking them to higher temperatures.
Tacit knowledge is traditionally defined as knowledge that is not explicit or that is difficult to express or transfer from someone else. This description of what it is not makes the definition itself tacit knowledge which is not very helpful. Management guides resolve this by giving examples, such as aesthetic sense, or innovation and leadership skills which are elusive skills that are hard to explain [see ‘Innovation out of chaos‘ on June 29th 2016 and ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017]. In engineering, there are a series of skills that are hard to explain or teach, including creative problem-solving [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018], artful design [see ‘Skilled in ingenuity‘ on August 19th, 2015] and elegant modelling [see ‘Credibility is in the eye of the beholder‘ on April 20th, 2016]. In a university course we attempt to lay the foundations for this tacit engineering knowledge; however, much of it is gained in work through experience and becomes regarded by organisations as part of their intellectual assets – the core of their competitiveness and source of their sustainable technology advantage. In our work on integrated nuclear digital environments, from which digital twins can be spawned, we would like to capture both explicit and tacit knowledge about complex systems throughout their life cycle which will extend beyond the working lives of their designers, builders and operators. One of the potential advantages of digital twins is as a knowledge management system by duplicating the life of the physical system and thus allowing its safer and cheaper operation in the long-term as well as its eventual decommissioning. However, besides the very nature of tacit knowledge that makes its capture difficult, we are finding that its perceived value as an intellectual asset renders stakeholders reluctant to discuss it with us; never mind consider how it might be preserved as part of a digital twin. Research has shown that tacit knowledge sharing is influenced by environmental factors including national culture, leadership characteristics and social networks [Cai et al, 2020]. I suspect that all of these factors were present in the heyday of the UK civil nuclear power industry when it worked together to construct advanced and complex systems; however, it has not built a power station since 1995 and, at the moment, new power stations are cancelled more often than built, which has almost certainly depressed all of these factors. So, perhaps we should not be surprised by the difficulties encountered in establishing an integrated nuclear digital environment despite its importance for the future of the industry.