Cross-border breakthrough for aircraft manufacturing

An innovation breakthrough by researchers in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could be the wind beneath the wings of future large-scale aerospace assembly.

Irish researchers North and South have created a compelling advanced prototype for Airbus using robotics and 3D scanning that could reduce the cost of aircraft assembly.

The prototype was developed by Irish Manufacturing Research and TEG with significant contributions from from Queen’s University Belfast and Hexagon.

“This project has allowed us to deliver significant economic impact through our deep-domain expertise in robotics and automation”

The research was carried out as part of the Measurement Aided Assembly of Large-scale Structures (MAAS) project, a two-year Smart Eureka project funded by Enterprise Ireland and the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) in Spain.

Flying high

The project had three objectives:

  • Develop an end-to-end assembly process to reduce the costs in the aircraft assembly operations
  • To develop a robot scanning solution to scan and inspect an aircraft wing using a mobile collaborative robot platform
  • Generate and manage digital 3D scans of the aircraft parts for best fit assembly operations. This research has the potential to transform the large-scale assembly processes in Aircraft manufacture, greatly reducing waste and cost.

“This project has allowed us to deliver significant economic impact through our deep-domain expertise in robotics and automation,” said Ken Horan, director of Robotics and Automation at IMR.

“Collaborating with TEG, QUB and Hexagon, all experts in their domains, has allowed us to rapidly deliver an articulated 3D scanning solution for both large and small area structures with production-ready precisions

“This adds to IMR’s extensive portfolio of robotic solutions for our industrial partners and has helped develop strong relationships between Queens, TEG, Hexagon with the real potential for future engagements.”

Airbus, as the end user in the project set stringent requirements on the development of an advanced prototype to ensure smooth transfer in their operations. The Robotics & Automation Group within IMR, set about developing the robotic platform which would enable full coverage on wing panels and wing stabilisers. To accelerate the full, both Hexagon and Queen University Belfast were engaged.

In less than 10 days this cross-border, interdisciplinary cohort collaboratively built, integrated, and demonstrated a robotics 3D scanning solution capable of capturing and registering 3D point clouds of individual wing panels and full 7-meter aircraft wing stabiliser in IMR’s facility in Mullingar.

“Queen’s University Belfast through the Northern Ireland Technology Center (NITC) were delighted when the opportunity to get involved in the MAAS project and utilise our expertise in aerospace automated assembly, leveraging QUB’s aerospace manufacturing equipment and technology capability developed through a recent Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) £5Mn investment,” said Colm Higgins, head of Northern Ireland Technology Centre at Queen’s University Belfast.

“This project is an example of great collaborative working between two centres and there are many more in progress. Together with IMR, Queen’s aims to strengthen research collaboration and develop strong, mutually beneficial, technology partner relationships, such as Hexagon MI.”

The learnings and know-how have boosted TEG’s capabilities in CAD, metrology, assembly and design and will form part of Airbus’s next generation production capabilities.

Main image: Aircraft wing at IMR research lab Mullingar.

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.