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Professor Paul Maropoulos
Professor Paul Maropoulos

Press Release - 17 July 2006

New £1.8 million grant could make aircraft production more efficient

Engineers at the University of Bath have been awarded £1.8 million pounds to find a way to use lasers and GPS systems to make spacecraft and airplanes more efficiently.

Experts working on the project are developing methods to ensure that vehicle parts up to 40 metres wide can consistently and cost effectively be made to accuracies of a fraction of a millimetre, giving UK firms a competitive advantage.

At present when these large parts are made, their size can vary – for instance an aircraft part constructed on one day can be fractions of a millimetre shorter or longer than one constructed in exactly the same way on the previous day.

This causes fitting problems and inconsistencies in shape, such as in the gaps between parts, reducing aerodynamic efficiency. To overcome this, aerospace companies are spending large amounts of money and time altering parts to fit.

But the Bath project could improve the reliability and accuracy of construction by looking at methods of what is known as large volume metrology - the science of measurement - such as lasers and global positions systems.

The project, led by Professor Paul Maropoulos, could lead to systems that allow firms to make accurate parts, or if one part is made too large, for other parts to be made smaller so that the final construction still fits.

Professor Maropoulos said that the combination of increased accuracy with the ability to also allow the part sizes to be varied if necessary, in a controlled manner, would ensure greater efficiency of production.

“The accurate measurement of large parts, up to 30 or 40 metres long, will increase the efficiency of assembly, reducing costs and eliminating the need for rework,” he said.

“The capturing of the real position and shape of parts and assemblies will also allow the automation of production methods, giving a unique competitive advantage to the UK aerospace industry.

“There are considerable challenges in seeking to reduce the measurement errors and establish the true three-dimensional shape – with an accuracy requirement of fractions of a millimetre – of large structures in industry.

“The accurate control of dimensions and shapes of aerospace products such as airframes and turbine blades will also improve their performance, as small deviations in manufacturing and assembly can cause operating inefficiencies that consume large quantities of energy.”

The importance that industry places on the research is shown by its donations of £617,000 to the project by firms including Airbus UK, Rolls Royce and EADS Astrium. The rest of the money comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the University’s own Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre.

Professor Maropoulos is a newly appointed Professor of Innovative Manufacturing at the University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. He moved to Bath from Durham University, where he was Professor in Engineering. He is an expert in computer aided engineering and manufacturing and has completed many innovative research projects in the aerospace, automotive and high precision engineering sectors. He is working with the Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Professor Tony Mileham, Professor Stephen Culley and Dr Geraint Owen.

The research is sponsored by Airbus UK, Rolls Royce, the spacecraft manufacturer EADS Astrium Ltd, Renishaw, the wind turbine manufacturer Vestas Technology UK Ltd, and the local Bath company Rotary Precision Instruments UK Ltd. Also participating are NPL, the National Physical Laboratory, and companies specialising in measurement systems, FARO UK Ltd and Metris.

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