If proof was ever needed that Irish SMEs can operate at the highest level of industry, the MAAS project certainly offers it. Among the outcomes of this two-year EUREKA project were valuable strategic partnerships between Irish SMEs, their European peers and Airbus.
“We have seen real business-to-business opportunities brought about as a result of this research project,” says Ken Horan, Director of Robotics and Automation at Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR), one of Ireland’s leading technology centres.
“It is one of those examples where all the elements came together – the international aspect, the B2B opportunity creation and the technical de-risking of a solution for a large multinational, with Irish SMEs being central to that,” he adds.
MAAS, which stands for Measurement Aided Assembly of Large-scale Structures, finished in late 2021. The multinational consortium comprised Airbus, specialist Irish engineering firm TEG, IMR (Irish Manufacturing Research) and Spanish robotics experts Robotnik. Northern Ireland Technology Centre, Queens University Belfast and other European SMEs such as Hexagon, Kuka Robots, MVTec, Multipix Imaging and PhotoNeo were also involved with supply of hardware and expertise.
Improving how aeroplane wings are made
The project was recommended for funding by the SMART EUREKA cluster programme. The project budget amounted to €4.7m, with the Irish partners accounting for €1.3m. It sought to facilitate B2B partnerships through the development of novel scanning and assembly techniques focused on Airbus’s wing manufacture.
“The grand challenge was to assemble airplane wings,” explains Horan. “Within that, the problem in aircraft assembly was the expense of manufacturing due to variability in panels and wing fames resulting in screw hole misalignment or panel to panel step height and gaps out of specification.”
“An automated system that could scan the frame, panels, locate, measure and identify the best fit panel for a particular section of wing, to provide ease of assembly and screwing was required.”
Specifically, the project aimed to develop an efficient robotic 3D scanning solution that could scan and inspect full aircraft wings at the high speed with the high accuracy needed. TEG and IMR worked closely to identify, develop, and deliver a full wing and panel 3D scanning and measurement solution. The project was successful on this front and the team also developed an end-to-end assembly process, which will significantly cut operational costs, and a digital matching process to identify parts for best fit assembly.
Project pays dividends for all stakeholders
While the implementation of the project outputs is expected to bring significant efficiencies to aircraft wing assembly, IMR itself reports gaining valuable experience in building virtual environments, 3D scanning and robotics integration, among other benefits of the project.
A long-term strategic partner to IMR with metrology expertise in highly regulated environments such as biopharmaceutical facilities, TEG also benefitted hugely from the project. It saw MAAS as an ideal opportunity to expand business opportunities, highlight its capabilities in innovative technologies and its professionalism in project management by engaging in research with a global aerospace leader.
Irish involvement in framing funding calls
Operating in 48 countries, EUREKA is a European-founded public network for international cooperation in research, development, and innovation. SMART is a EUREKA cluster programme, and offers a framework to bring together SMEs, large companies and research performing organisations to collaborate on international research projects in advanced manufacturing.
IMR was a founding member of SMART EUREKA and holds the vice chair seat on the board. “IMR made the strategic decision some years ago to get involved in a number of European boards and committees that are defining and framing the direction of calls,” explains Horan, adding that this has paid dividends in projects such as MAAS.
Advice to others seeking funding
Horan recommends any organisation seeking this type of funding takes a long-term perspective. “Look well down the track,” he says.
“European projects are great, but they take time to formulate, submit and execute, and your submission in its first iteration may not be successful. If you are going into it with an expectation of success on your first runout or outcomes within 12 months, European funding is not for you.”
He adds that it is important to be strategic in compiling a research proposal. “Make sure it is addressing a real business opportunity or challenge and is not just something that has come across your desk. These are potentially very high impact exercises, but if the project is not aligned with your core business or a strategic direction for it, this is not the best mechanism.”
Choosing project partners
Companies considering submitting a proposal for EUREKA calls should be selective when it comes to choosing their research partner, says Horan.
“You need to look to see if they have done this style of work before. Ask what the outcomes were and understand if they have delivered impact through their projects. You are going to be working on this for the next two years or more and investing significant resources into it, so it’s vital to do your homework on your research partner.”
Valuable support from Enterprise Ireland
The project was also supported by Enterprise Ireland and the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI). “Enterprise Ireland was quick to respond throughout the project and remained engaged when we submitted reports or requests. We got extremely useful engagement from Enterprise Ireland, with clearly defined financial and technical reporting requirements,” says Horan.
If you would like advice about any aspect of the EUREKA programme, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit EUREKA – Enterprise Ireland (enterprise-ireland.com)