Manufacturing is undergoing an historic transformation across the industrialised world. While we can learn from Germany, the reality is that Australia’s advanced composite manufacturing sector will adapt the best elements we have here, and around the world, to service our unique characteristics.
There have been countless reports and opinions on a blueprint for a healthy and productive Australian advanced manufacturing sector. All acknowledge that Germany is one of the world leaders in science and technology and a force from which to draw inspiration. For that reason, I travelled to Germany in July to visit a number of leading organisations in composite technologies to assess their portfolios, industry strategies and funding models.
Germany’s academic and research, development and innovation sectors work synergistically with industry and the government to drive manufacturing advancement. Germany’s automotive companies employ more than 100,000 researchers (full time equivalent), which is more than one quarter of the total R&D workforce in Germany’s private workforce and the largest number of research personnel in its manufacturing sector, according to Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI). The spend for research and development for the aerospace sector is also very high at 12% of the sector’s turnover. For both sectors, the government-driven motivation to reduce weight, material and energy consumption in production processes and the end products has led to unprecedented uptake in advanced composites for many years. In turn, many of the step-changes achieved in these markets have diffused across the world into a myriad of other markets, such as marine.
Prof Dr-Ing Richard Degenhardt of the Institute of Composite Structures and Adaptive Systems for DLR German Aerospace, based in the northern city of Braunschweig, kindly organised a comprehensive program of visits in Braunschweig, Stade and Bremen. The institute is a leading facility in the field of lightweight composite fibre design, research into more efficient manufacturing methods for CFRP structures and improved analysis and design methods. INVENT, an engineering firm that specialises in developing high-precision structural composites components used in satellites and the equipment for the ExoMars 2016 and 2020 expeditions, is close by. Its work in piezo actuators and sensors is particularly exciting.
Stade is the home of CFK Valley which was founded in 2004 to nurture the development of carbon fibre reinforced composites in the region through R&D partnerships, collaboration, value creation and training. Deriving its name from the successful cluster town of Silicon Valley, CFK Valley has a membership base of more than 100 regional, national and international companies and institutes, including Airbus. Now, an internationally recognised network, CFK Valley is following its members into surrounding countries and recently followed Airbus to form in China. CFK Valley is the blueprint for Carbon Nexus and the cluster of organisations at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds, near Geelong.
The highlights of my visit to the Valley include a tour of the DLR German Aerospace’s Center for Lightweight-Production-Technology, home to BALU, the world’s largest research autoclave, and a personalised tour of an Airbus manufacturing plant that specialises in the production and further development of CFRP-technology.
With a loading length of 20m, a loading diameter of 5.8m and maximum operating temperature of 420°C, the main objective of the DLR facility is the optimisation of the curing process for components made of carbon fibre.
With some 1,700 employees, the Airbus Stade plant produces vertical tailplanes for the entire Airbus fleet, from the A320 to the A380; and also the upper wing shells and the upper and lower fuselage shells for the A350XWB. Measuring 35m in length, these wing shells are the largest CFRP components built in Stade. Vertical tailplanes are manufactured on a state-of-the-art 45m automated production line. Airbus Operations Stade also focuses on training for CFRP technology specialists.
In Stuttgart, I visited ARENA2036, a research factory dedicated to the future, particularly the year 2036, the 150 year anniversary of the car. Closely linked to the automotive industry in the region, lightweighting through design, engineering and the development of new materials and production technologies is its focus
According to Germany Trade & Invest, the country’s automotive industry is the largest in Europe with a recorded turnover in 2015 of Euro 404 billion (AUD$610 billion) which is around 20% of total German industry revenue. Its aerospace industry revenues were over EUR 37 billion in 2016. Both sectors drive technological innovation, bringing together electronics, robotics, measurement, control and materials technology to achieve accelerated outcomes.
Manufacturing is undergoing an historic transformation across the industrialised world. The needs of each economy and government policies will inform and steward the evolution of manufacturing in each country. While we can learn from Germany, the reality is that Australia’s advanced composite manufacturing sector will adapt the best elements we have here and around the world to service our unique characteristics.
I thank Prof Murray Scott, Director of Advanced Composite Structures – Australia, for his assistance and introductions, particularly to Richard Degenhardt.