Posted on: 11 March 2016
Stephanie Taylor finds out about Hamburg’s latest aviation attraction.
The new ZAL TechCenter is located nearby Hamburg’s Finkenwerder Airport
As part of my trip to AIX, I was lucky enough to receive a tour of the brand new ZAL TechCenter in Hamburg from its managing director and CEO, Roland Gerhards.
On arrival, Gerhards explained the TechCenter’s interesting shareholder structure. “The city of Hamburg decided to launch something new between nine joint forces in the industry. We’re not a government-owned company because Hamburg only owns 20%, which means we don’t have to go through all the procurement and HR processes. Lufthansa Technik and Airbus also own 20%, so we’re not a subsidiary of these companies either, but we work very closely with them.
“We also have an association which you can easily become a member of, so you can join the association without changing the shareholder structure – they own 18%,” Gerhard elaborated. “Then we have the DLR, the German Aerospace Centre, which owns 10%; and the four universities in Hamburg which own 3% each: Hamburg-Harburg, the University of Applied Sciences, Helmut-Schmidt University and the University of Hamburg.”
The building is 26,000 square metres (nearly 300,000 square feet) with room for between 25 and 30 companies to have an office, potentially creating a total of 600 employees. Gerhards confirmed that 13 companies have already signed a contract with ZAL, including the likes of Diehl and Zodiac, and that 12 remaining companies are expected to sign soon. Of the 300 employees already working in TechCenter, some of them are from Airbus’s research division.
The building’s early success made sense when Gerhard took us through its philosophy. “We want to bring together all the ideas from our shareholders to cover the path that has been known as the valley of death, where a lot of ideas fail before companies can introduce new products due to high costs and certification issues. The idea of the building here is so we can do research under one roof with 25 or 30 companies,” he averred. “Airbus wants to discuss more things with partners openly. We obviously protect intellectual property, but this should speed up the whole innovation process. We think only if we work together will new things happen.”
This idea has been channelled into the very architecture of the building. “You’ll see the general layout is in galleries so that people can communicate with each other,” Gerhards stated. “It’s quite a complex structure with regards to fire protection – we have galleries outside the building as an escape pass, but the aim is to make a closer link to new technology and the architecture reflects that.”
The building is somewhat divided up though, to focus on six domains: fuel cell research (not just for aerospace), the cabin, systems (air conditioning and electrical, for example), manufacturing and production, acoustics and innovation (which makes use of a virtual reality lab).
“We invested €2.7 million into the fuel cell infrastructure in Hangar C. We have 12 labs which can be used on a rental agreement and we supply hydrogen, oxygen, compressed air, nitrogen and a centralised cooling system as well as a special electricity connection to the Hamburg network. We can infuse the electricity we use with the fuel cells back into the network,” Gerhards intoned. “Legally and technically it’s not an easy process but it saves a lot of effort for the single test installations. Usually you need a generator and a brake for that, but we skip that and just use the electricity network here.”
Another highlight is the TechCenter’s Acoustic Flight Lab, which has been designed to perform acoustic flight tests under controlled conditions (which doesn’t happen in the air because of changes in temperature and so on). The Flight Lab measures the noise knocking onto the surface, transmitting into the cabin and producing vibrations inside.
The Acoustic Flight Lab fuselage is based on an Airbus A320
“A system of 128 loudspeakers is capable of reproducing 135-137 dB(a). The system is capable of moving 355 degrees around the demonstrator and can be adjusted to any curvature you can think of,” remarked Henning Scheel, R&T coordination Iiterior Noise in the acoustics domain of EPA Power Plant. “We have about 2,400 cubic metres of air inside here, 800 square metres of absorbent lining which reaches about 60-70cm thick of foam material. This reduces all reflection coming from the wall back to the surface of the demonstrator. The demonstrator itself is capable of carrying around a one tonne load, so we can put up to 20 people inside to conduct perception studies.
“Then afterwards, we’ll develop passive and active noise control means alongside new structural designs capable of reducing the noise properly and step by step change the cabin with our partners,” Scheel concluded.
The Virtual Reality Lab may have looked a little underwhelming, but as Gerhards noted, “It isn’t about the wow factor, it’s about the collaboration. The VISCON software suite is easy to use and smaller companies can make use of it too. The unique thing here is that more than one person can view it on the big screen using 3D glasses. You can manipulate everything so we have a head tracking system, a finger tracking system, where you can work on interactive solutions designing things together. We have a server farm just next door which is not connected to the Airbus network, so there are no worries about confidential data.”
Gerhards emphasised that the software could be used to show shop floor layouts and to research how manufacturing processes turn out with the use of robots.
Another gallery shows different stages of empty fuselages. “Years ago in manufacturing, there was enough time to play around with new technologies,” Gerhards said. “Now with a rate increase to one aircraft per day minimum, there’s no time for the scientist to go in there and check things out. We’ve put a fuselage here so that scientists have a test specimen they can play around with because it’s available.”
As you can see from the pictures, the essence of the ZAL TechCenter encourages experimentation, so at LARA we’re excited to see which products and services are going to make it through the valley of death in the near future.