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‘Digital testbed’ could replace physical testing in aircraft manufacturing

Professional Engineering

Stock image. The Smarter Testing programme aims to explore digital inspection techniques for use in aircraft development and manufacturing (Credit: Shutterstock)
Stock image. The Smarter Testing programme aims to explore digital inspection techniques for use in aircraft development and manufacturing (Credit: Shutterstock)

‘Digital inspection’ using simulation and modelling could replace physical testing in the development of new aircraft, the partners behind a new project have said.

The Smarter Testing programme, led by the National Physical Laboratory and Airbus, aims to explore how novel inspection techniques can be used to predict product performance and identify failures early.

The three-year, £15m project, sponsored by the Aerospace Technology Institute, will use existing physical test programmes to generate data. That data will be used to develop the expertise, algorithms and frameworks needed to be able to replace physical testing with simulation and modelling.

“We are entering another period of historic universal change, and its catalysts are the advances in communications and connectivity in areas such as additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence (AI), and autonomous systems. The transition to an industrially digitalised manufacturing landscape will see a step change in the volume of data used in manufacturing. As people and processes become increasingly reliant on data to inform decisions, trust in the data will become a critical issue,” an NPL announcement said.

“For a long time, designers and manufacturers have relied on data-driven modelling and simulations for product design, but there is now an increasing drive for businesses to use data-driven simulations to replace physical test[ing]. This method offers many significant advantages, including time and cost savings, increasing the pace at which engineers can innovate, and unlocking the complexity of proving that a product, system, or service meets the intended performance, ultimately increasing the competitiveness of UK industry.”  

As the UK’s national metrology institute, the NPL will provide empirical evidence for data as it is generated. Its data science team will create standards, techniques and frameworks, aiming to allow the confident use of data.

Data-driven simulation and AI will be used for product development, testing and eventually certification, but the NPL stressed the need to explain how decisions are made and provide trust in the technique.

“The opportunity this project presents is huge,” said Steve Raynes, head of R&T business development at Airbus. “It will be a real step-change in the way we approach an extremely costly and time-consuming part of a vital aspect of aircraft manufacturing.

“Simply put, we’re going digital across a number of aerospace testing and certification processes. When you consider that to date, a lot of this work has been done on huge physical test rigs which have to be built and maintained, you can easily see how having a digital representation in place of some physical testing can help save time and money.

“This part of the aerospace industry is extremely specialist and we’re delighted we’ve been able to put together the best team possible to deliver the project aims.”

The NPL is applying its expertise to help make the best use of data in a world where “cyber-physical information is the norm,” said Gareth Edwards, the laboratory’s strategy lead for industrial digitalisation.  “The direct benefit of NPL’s work will be the creation and adoption of the technology, skills and understanding needed to innovate and compete within digitalised product development supply chains. This will lead to the creation of new and higher skilled jobs that address the productivity challenge, a strengthening of supply chains within the UK and an increased competitiveness for businesses in the global market.”

The programme also involves CFMS Services, Gom UK, Dassault Systemes UK and the University of Liverpool.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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