Tag Archives: aerospace

Third time lucky

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.

Last month, we did it again with an article on ‘An experimental study on the manufacture and characterization of in-plane fibre-waviness defects in composites‘.  Third time lucky, because this time our University press office were interested enough to write a piece for the news page of the University website, entitled ‘Engineers develop new method to recreate fibre waviness defects in lab‘.  Fibre waviness is an issue in the manufacture of structural components of aircraft using carbon fibre reinforced composites because kinks or waves in the fibres can cause structural weaknesses.  As part of his PhD, supported by Airbus and the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Will Christian developed an innovative technique to generate defects in our lab so that we can gain a better understanding of them. Read the article or the press release to find out more!

Image shows fracture through a waviness-defect in the top-ply of a carbon-fibre laminate observed in a microscope following sectioning after failure.


Christian WJR, DiazDelaO FA, Atherton K & Patterson EA, An experimental study on the manufacture and characterisation of in-plane fibre-waviness defects in composites, R. Soc. open sci. 5:180082, 2018.

The disrupting benefit of innovation

Most scientific and technical conferences include plenary speeches that are intended to set the agenda and to inspire conference delegates to think, innovate and collaborate.  Andrew Sherry, the Chief Scientist of the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) delivered a superb example last week at the NNL SciTec 2018 which was held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool on the waterfront.  With his permission, I have stolen his title and one of his illustrations for this post.  He used a classic 2×2 matrix to illustrate different types of change: creative change in the newspaper industry that has constantly redeveloped its assets from manual type-setting and printing to on-line delivery via your phone or tablet; progressive change in the airline industry that has incrementally tested and adapted so that modern commercial aircraft look superficially the same as the first jet airliner but represent huge advances in economy and reliability; inventive change in Liverpool’s Albert Dock that was made redundant by container ships but has been reinvented as a residential, tourism and business district.  The fourth quadrant, he reserved for the civil nuclear industry in the UK which requires disruptive change because its core assets are threatened by the end-of-life closure of all existing plants and because its core activity, supplying electrical power, is threatened by cheaper alternatives.

At the end of last year, NNL brought together all the prime nuclear organisations in the UK with leaders from other sectors, including aerospace, construction, digital, medical, rail, robotics, satellite and ship building at the Royal Academy of Engineering to discuss the drivers of innovation.  They concluded that innovation is not just about technology, but that successful innovation is driven by five mutually dependent themes that are underpinned by enabling regulation:

  1. innovative technologies;
  2. culture & leadership;
  3. collaboration & supply chain;
  4. programme and risk management; and
  5. financing & commercial models.

SciTec’s focus was ‘Innovation through Collaboration’, i.e. tackling two of these themes, and Andrew tasked delegates to look outside their immediate circle for ideas, input and solutions [to the existential threats facing the nuclear industry] – my words in parentheses.

Innovative technology presents a potentially disruptive threat to all established activities and we ignore it at our peril.  Andrew’s speech was wake up call to an industry that has been innovating at an incremental scale and largely ignoring the disruptive potential of innovation.  Are you part of a similar industry?  Maybe it’s time to check out the threats to your industry’s assets and activities…


Sherry AH, The disruptive benefit of innovation, NNL SciTec 2018 (including the graphic & title).

McGahan AM, How industries change, HBR, October 2004.

INSTRUCTIVE research relevance

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!

Image Credit: Powering the 737: CFM56-7 series | by Frans Zwart at https://www.flickr.com/photos/15545136@N06/9719995154  [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]


Massive engineering

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.