At the end of last year my research group had articles published by the Royal Society’s journal Open Science in two successive months [see ‘Press Release!‘ on November 15th, 2017 and ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017]. I was excited about both publications because I had only had one article published before by the Royal Society and because the Royal Society issues a press release whenever it publishes a new piece of science. However, neither press release generated any interest from anyone; probably because science does not sell newspapers (or attract viewers) unless it is bad news or potentially life-changing. And our work on residual stress around manufactured holes in aircraft or on the motion of nanoparticles does not match either of these criteria.
I have been resolving an extreme case of Tsundoku [see ‘Tsundoki‘ on May 24th, 2017] over the last few weeks by reading ‘A short walk in the Hindu Kush‘ by Eric Newby which I bought nearly forty years ago but never read, despite taking it on holiday a couple of years ago. Although it was first published in 1958, it is still in print and on its 50th edition; so, it has become something of classic piece of travel writing. It is funny, understated and very English, or least early to mid 20th century English.
It felt quite nostalgic for me because about thirty years ago I took a short walk in Gilgit Baltistan. Gilgit Baltistan is in northern Pakistan on the border with China and to the west of Nuristan in Afghanistan where Eric Newby and Hugh Carless took their not-so short walk. I went for a scramble up a small peak to get a better view of the mountains in the Hindu Kush after a drive of several days up the Karakorum Highway. We were driven from Islamabad to about a mile short of the border with China on the Khunjerab pass at 4730 m [compared to Mont Blanc at 4810 m].
I was there because the Pakistani Government supplied a small group of lecturers with a mini-bus and driver to take us up the Karakorum Highway [and back!] in exchange for a course of CPD [Continuing Professional Development] lectures on structural integrity. This we delivered in Islamabad to an audience of academics and industrialists during the week before the trip up the Karakoram Highway. So, Eric Newby’s description of whole villages turning out to greet them and of seeing apricots drying in the sun on the flat roofs of the houses brought back memories for me.
The Southwest airplane accident last week has been initially attributed to a fatigue crack in a fan blade in the engine. One of the reasons that this an extremely rare event is the enormous research effort that has been expended on the design, testing and maintenance of the engines and the airframe. It’s an ongoing research effort to address the trilemma of aircraft that are safe, sustainable and low cost to build and operate. In collaboration with Strain Solutions Limited, we are in the last year of a three-year project called INSTRUCTIVE which is funded by the Clean Sky 2 programme of the European Commission [see ‘Instructive report and Brexit‘ on March 29th, 2017]. The focus of the research is the development of techniques for use in the aerospace industry to detect the initiation of cracks in the airframe before the crack is visible to the naked eye [see ‘Instructive update‘ on October 4th, 2017]. Laboratory-based techniques exist with this capability and the objective is to transfer the technology to the industrial scale and environment – initially in structural tests performed as part of the design and certification process and perhaps later as part of inspections of aircraft in service. So far, we have moved from the small components reported in the update posted in October, to a chunk of aircraft fuselage in our lab and we are preparing to participate in a test being conducted by Airbus later this year.
We are also planning a knowledge exchange workshop on ‘Real-time damage tracking in engineering structures’ on November 21st, 2018 at the University of Liverpool’s London campus. The one-day workshop is being organised in collaboration with the British Society for Strain Measurement. More details to follow – it will be free!
Last month I was at the Photomechanics 2018 conference in Toulouse in France. Photomechanics is the science of using photons to measure deformation and displacements in anything, from biological cells to whole engineering structures, such as bridges or powerstations [see for example: ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ posted on November 18th, 2015]. I am interested in the challenges created by the extremes of scale and environmental conditions; although on this occasion we presented our research on addressing the challenges of industrial applications, in the EU projects INSTRUCTIVE [see ‘Instructive update‘ on October 4th, 2017] and MOTIVATE [see ‘Brave New World‘ posted on January 10th, 2018].
It was a small conference without parallel sessions and the organisers were more imaginative than usual in providing us with opportunities for interaction. At the end of first day of talks, we went on a guided walking tour of old Toulouse. At the end of second day, we went to the Toulouse Aerospace Museum and had the chance to go onboard Concorde.
I stayed an extra day for an organised tour of the Airbus A380 assembly line. Only the engine pylons are made in Toulouse. The rest of the 575-seater plane is manufactured around Europe and arrives in monthly road convoys after travelling by sea to local ports. The cockpit, centre, tail sections of the double-deck fuselage travel separately on specially-made trucks with each 45m long wing section following on its own transporter. It takes about a month to assemble these massive sections. This is engineering on a huge scale performed with laser precision (laser systems are used to align the sections). The engines are also manufactured elsewhere and transported to Toulouse to be hung on the wings. The maximum diameter of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, being attached to the plane we saw, is approximately same as the fuselage diameter of an A320 airplane.
Once the A380 is assembled and its systems tested, then it is flown to another Airbus factory in Germany to be painted and for the cabin to be fitted out to the customer’s specification. In total, 11 Airbus factories in France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom are involved in producing the A380; this does not include the extensive supply chain supporting these factories. As I toured the assembly line and our guide assailed us with facts and figures about the scale of the operation, I was thinking about why the nuclear power industry across Europe could not collaborate on this scale to produce affordable, identical power stations. Airbus originated from a political decision in the 1970s to create a globally-competitive European aerospace industry that led to a collaboration between national manufacturers which evolved into the Airbus company. One vision for fusion energy is a globally dispersed manufacturing venture that would evolve from the consortium that is currently building the ITER experiment and planning the DEMO plant. However, there does not appear to be any hint that the nuclear fission industry is likely to follow the example of the European aerospace industry to create a globally-competitive industry producing massive pieces of engineering within a strictly regulated environment.
There was no photography allowed at Airbus so today’s photograph is of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse.