Text: Jurjen Slump
Image: SAM | XL
There is very little automation going on in the production of lightweight structures, such as aircraft wings and wind turbines, even though it would offer major advantages. The new SAM|XL (Smart Advanced Manufacturing XL) field lab on the TU Delft Campus is set to change that. Aircraft builders and other manufacturers of lightweight structures will soon be able to develop smart production methods here. “There is a huge demand worldwide for pursuing automation now”, say CEO Kjelt van Rijswijk and business developer Jos van den Boom.
“We have just been working on a polishing project”, explains Van Rijswijk. “The front of a wing on a business jet needs to have an attractive shine, else it will not sell easily. At the moment, this polishing is still done manually, which is dirty work and specialists are in short supply. You could also teach robots to do this work.”
There are major advantages to using lightweight materials: an aircraft made from composite components consumes less fuel and has a longer range and lower CO2 emissions. In shipbuilding, the use of composite allows for a lighter structure above the waterline, resulting in a more stable vessel. In the construction of wind turbines – the large blades are all made from composite – the use of this material increases performance.
At the same time, it is important that lightweight structures do not become so light that they might break. This calls for extensive quality controls during the production process, especially in the aviation industry. At the moment, much of this is still manual work, explains Van Rijswijk. “The layers of the composite component are each made individually.” Each layer is checked separately – do the fibres have the right orientation? – before the next layer is applied.In order to meet the increasing demand, automating the production process is the obvious solution. “Automation results in a shorter production time, lower costs and much better quality control even during the production process”, Van den Boom summarises.“As yet, no one is able to achieve this on a large scale”, says Van den Boom. It is the very reason why SAM|XL was established. In this field lab – or collaborative research centre, as Van Rijswijk and Van den Boom themselves call it – manufacturers can join forces with scientists and other partners to develop intelligent systems for the production of large composite components.
Delft is the ideal location for SAM|XL. “The region of Zuid-Holland has many composite companies”, explains Van Rijswijk. “Some of these supply composites to Airbus and Boeing, but there are also numerous shipbuilding industry and wind turbine production suppliers.” The new field lab will bring together all the expertise required to optimise the production of large lightweight composite components. “Knowledge of lightweight structures, specialist material knowledge and expertise in the field of automation: robots, software and sensors.”
The expertise available in the region means that SAM|XL is attractive to many parties. The distinguishing factor in all of this is the wide-ranging knowledge at TU Delft. A world leader for many years in the field of aerospace engineering, materials science, composites and robotics, the university has a great deal to offer. For example, SAM|XL works in close collaboration with the TU Delft Robotics Institute. It is an initiative of TU Delft, Fokker-GKN and regional governments (see box).
Companies can make use of the combined expertise of TU Delft, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and SAM|XL itself. “We are in the process of building a team of robotics and software engineers, specifically for applications in this sector”, says Van Rijswijk. “When, for example, additional material knowledge is needed, or specific knowledge in the field of data and artificial intelligence (AI), researchers from TU Delft or elsewhere will be brought in on a project basis.”
SAM|XL is clearly positioning itself as a hi-tech field lab specialising in lightweight structures, and in doing so is strengthening the robotics ecosystem around TU Delft. “Other field labs, such as RoboHouse, focus on wider robotics applications across various sectors, including production, logistics, agri and health”, says Van Rijswijk. He believes that the two field labs complement each other well.
Production, inspection and assembly
So what exactly does SAM|XL have to offer to companies? First of all, manufacturing – robots building lightweight components from different layers of fibres. In addition, they can offer automated quality inspection during or after the production process, and finally control the assembly process itself. The various components need to be welded together or have holes drilled into them.
The robots doing this work will be large and advanced. Large, because they are dealing with large-sized panels (aircraft wings, turbine blades, boats, bridges). “That is where the XL in our name comes from”, says Van Rijswijk. “You need to have equipment with enough reach to work with large surfaces.” Advanced, because the robots need to be intelligent and precise. Although the end product may be a rigid panel, it does not start out like that. Initially, the product is still very ‘floppy’, explains Van den Boom. Robots need to be able to deal with that. “So, if you want to deploy robots, you need to keep checking where the material is located and what shape the curved panels have at that time.
This calls for robots with advanced vision and AI that are capable of ‘feeling and seeing’ the product. In addition, only low volumes are involved at this stage, and these cannot be automated without smart robots that are capable of performing multiple tasks. This makes it extremely challenging and calls for innovative solutions.
The robots doing this work will be large and advanced. Large, because they are dealing with large-sized panels (aircraft wings, turbine blades, boats, bridges). That is where the XL in our name comes from.Kjelt Van Rijswijk. , CEO
The SAM|XL community
There is a lot of interest from the manufacturing industry to become involved with SAM|XL, but why would a company need this new field lab? There are various potential reasons. “If you wish to automate an existing production line, the last thing you want to do is disrupt current production”, explains Van Rijswijk. At SAM|XL, it is possible to replicate the production line (or part of it). If the company eventually decides to start working with the system developed in SAM|XL, it can then purchase its own machines.”
The power of SAM|XL lies in the fact that the technological challenges faced by participating companies drive the field lab’s activities. Participants therefore also have a say in the type of equipment to be purchased.
In SAM|XL, there are various robotic systems that can be used for testing. The field lab is not exclusively partnered with particular suppliers, which increases the potential for customer solutions. “We offer you the opportunity to compare different systems, making it more likely that you will implement the right technology”, says Van Rijswijk. Suppliers of smaller machines, sensors or software can become Technology Partners, thus gaining the opportunity to demonstrate their technology and develop it further.
Suppliers of lightweight materials are also welcome in SAM|XL. They are increasingly being asked by their customers whether their products are suitable for automated processing. In SAM|XL, they can work with their customers in setting up a project team to study this.
The range of hardware that SAM|XL has at its disposal often comes with proprietary operating software, which may be incompatible with the software from other suppliers. This is why Van Rijswijk and Van den Boom also see the ROS Industrial open source software for robots as one of the solutions they will be recommending.
“If you have robots from brand A and all the additional components on the robots are from brands B and C, then ROS industrial is a perfect program for ensuring they can all communicate with each other.” Thanks to this program, technological solutions can also be interchangeable, which reduces programming time.
Protection of intellectual property
The SAM|XL community has called for clear rules in terms of confidentiality and the protection of intellectual property (IE). For this reason, it is being professionally organised. “We are dealing with serious companies that want to know in advance what will happen to the knowledge developed here. That is why we have also developed a mature model to deal with this”, says Van Rijswijk. It is made up of a so-called participation model that defines how to deal with intellectual property developed in collaboration with other partners in SAM|XL.
SAM|XL is currently still located in the ‘Aeroplane Hall’ in the faculty of Aerospace Engineering. At the end of this year, Van Rijswijk and Van den Boom will be given the keys to their own building on Rotterdamseweg, which is also part of the TU Delft Campus. The building comprises 2,000 m² of production space and a further 200 m² of office accommodation.
Van Rijswijk ultimately expects SAM|XL to develop into a vibrant community. It will become a place that sparks enthusiasm among students for a career in the manufacturing industry, with a large network of companies and researchers around it. He predicts that it will bring about a fundamental development of the campus, in which SAM|XL becomes an important link in transferring knowledge from the university to the business community. But first of all, he aims to put SAM|XL firmly on the map. “Our first projects are now up-and-running and we are working enthusiastically on them with our partners. We first need to generate some successes, and the rest will follow automatically.”
There is plenty of work to be done. The production process is subject to constant changes. Currently, everything revolves around robots, but smart materials are also set to play a major role in the future, predicts Van den Boom. “This involves materials with integrated sensors for inspection and maintenance. It could prove to be a very interesting field for us.” This primarily concerns the advantages offered during the maintenance process. In the future, the business jet will automatically generate an alert when it’s time for another polish.
SAM|XL is an initiative of TU Delft, Fokker-GKN and regional governments. Its other founding partners are TNO, Airbus Defence & Space Nederland, KVE, GTM, Airborne and Suzlon. The centre is being co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Province of Zuid-Holland and the Municipality of The Hague.
The TU Delft Innovation & Impact Centre and InnovationQuarter played an important role in the application for the ERFD grant. The project will cost around € 4.2 million. SAM|XL is also part of the SMITZH regional network of field labs.