It’s visible in many sectors of the high-tech manufacturing industry: in the design process, all the attention goes to the optimal end product, but a lot less to its future maintenance. And that’s exactly what can make the difference between quality for the moment and long-term reliability. This also applies to the aircraft industry, where composite materials are rapidly taking over from metal as a building material. These are great steps, but how do you organize the maintenance? Who checks the long-term reliability, who takes care of the small and large repairs? Precisely for that purpose, the Development Centre for Maintenance of Composites (DCMC) at Business Park Aviolanda in Woensdrecht has started. This field lab, where new methods and techniques for composite maintenance and repair are developed, officially opens its doors on 29 April.
New aircraft are increasingly made of composite. But the aviation maintenance market was actually not yet prepared for this. Damage to composite is often invisible from the outside, even though something could be broken in the fibers in the material. Maintenance of composite is also very different from that of metal for this reason. Both engineering education and MRO companies still have insufficient knowledge of it. The DCMC is working on solving these problems. The focus, for now, is on the aircraft industry, but cross-sector collaboration is also high on the agenda. After all, anyone who can repair a helicopter rotor also knows how to deal with a blade from an offshore wind turbine, for example. We talk about the opportunities for this specific branch within smart maintenance with Martin Knegt, Managing Director of DCMC, and Marco Brinkman, Managing Director of SPECTO Services and Chairman of the Board of DCMC.
Martin Knegt has been involved with DCMC in Woensdrecht since 2019, after a long career with Fokker Services. In fact, that career has not been interrupted, as Fokker is currently seconding Knegt to DCMC. “To be even more precise, it is officially Panta Holdings, because, since April 1, that company acquired Fokker Technologies/GKN Aerospace.” Fokker, together with NLR, TU Delft, and Specto, was the initiator of DCMC in 2017. In addition, there has always been an important role for the Ministry of Defense. “That involvement of Defense – as a ‘neighbor’ of the headquarters at Aviolanda – is still strong,” adds Knegt.
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The move from metal (especially aluminum) to composites has everything to do with weight and cost. Modern unmanned aircraft (drones), for example, are made of composite as standard. These plastics are also becoming increasingly important in civil aviation. Whereas jumbo jets used to need four engines, the new generation of Boeings and Airbuses mainly have two-engine versions. This is all because of the advent of composite, a material that is many times lighter, without having to sacrifice strength. This means more efficient fuel consumption and therefore lower costs. But although composite has many advantages, it is not yet standard in aviation. For aircraft for longer flights, or for flights with many stopovers, metal is still preferred.
The impetus for the creation of DCMC was in the emergence of composites as a replacement for aluminum, around 2013. “From an occasional addition in composite, that all developed quickly to a structural place for composite in the whole process of aircraft building,” says Knegt. “Think of complete fuselages and wings for the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787. The same is true for the F35, which incorporates many Dutch materials and techniques, and the NH90 helicopter.”
However high the quality of the aircraft, after its delivery maintenance and repair are also involved from day 1. “Traditional structural repair manuals are available for all that work, but they need to be updated a bit more. What’s important here is to get instructions that lead to certifiable repairs. Our partners realized this at a certain point, but at the same time they established that this is not something for one single party. It is precisely by bringing together various parties, each with their own expertise, that you can make progress. That’s why we brought the wishes together with NLR, Fokker, SPECTO, TU Delft, and the Ministry of Defense; by bringing all that expertise together in concrete projects, one can make progress.”
DCMC now has six projects underway, ranging from scanning techniques to performing non-destructive testing on the composite material, to automating repair via robotization, and applying innovation to composite wind turbine blades. The seventh project is the development of the site itself, with the first visible step being the official opening on April 29. “For our visibility, the demonstrator that we will soon be able to show at Aviolanda is very important,” says board chairman Marco Brinkman. “You can make videos of anything, and we do, but especially since it is a new area for many parties, you want to see something like this with your own eyes. Very specifically: this is a panel, this is damage, and with these steps we solve it.”
While more parties will soon be welcomed at Aviolanda, the focus also remains outward. After all, in order to be successful in the long term, there must be more partners and more customers. Knegt: “At the moment, European and regional subsidies are still very important to us, such as the EFRO OPZuid project, but in the long term that is not a sustainable model, of course. That is why we are going into the market to show what we are capable of. Both within aviation and beyond.”
In that process, DCMC is also dependent on third parties, for example around regulations. Knegt: “Take a technology such as ‘patch repairs’: this involves the automated repair of a damaged spot on an aircraft. We place a ‘matching patch’ on the damaged part. We have demonstrated that the strength of this is entirely satisfactory, but how do you convince the authorities of this so that it is also certifiable? That process is still ongoing, but the market is obviously looking forward to an answer.”
There is no doubt about the ultimate potential of DCMC, says also Marco Brinkman, who in daily life leads SPECTO. “This is the moment to move on. In terms of content, it is not a complicated story, but the market is not really ready because of Corona, of course. Our main target group, the aviation industry, is currently in survival mode, everyone understands that. That is why we would like to broaden our focus. Think of the shipping industry and the automotive sector, where composites are also playing an increasing role – or offshore wind parks. We would also be interesting as a development center for research for third parties. You could say that we are between the large institutes and the industry; between fundamental and application-oriented. And that needn’t be limited to the Netherlands. There is a large sales market abroad.”
The biggest problem of this new sector within the manufacturing industry – the lack of attention to maintenance – is precisely the biggest opportunity for DCMC. But that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. “In the countries around us, a lot of government money is put into research centers for making composites,” says Brinkman. “But much less in maintaining them. We can distinguish ourselves and make ourselves useful. But that won’t happen by itself. How are we going to market ourselves? How can we become visible? There’s still some work to be done there.”
The Aviolanda Campus, next to the air force base in Woensdrecht, is an ideal starting point for that. “But it will be even better if we can link the parties already present with a range of new ones. These should then come from government agencies and the business community, but certainly also from education,” says Knegt. There is already small-scale education present on the site, but it could all be more extensive. “Especially when you know that our field requires very specifically trained talents.”
Brinkman can only confirm this from his experience at SPECTO. “For the innovations we work on, you need well-trained personnel; so training is essential for us. Now, that happens mainly from senior to junior within our company itself, on-the-job. For many training courses, this is also a completely new area, but they really need to make that leap. New learning modules are needed for composite maintenance. We also always have a great need for trainees and interns, because from them we can often select our future employees.”
To better make the jump to other sectors, DCMC has now also joined World Class Maintenance, a network for smart maintenance. “In a lot of areas we are already working,” says Knegt. “But ultimately our ambition is to completely work cross-sectorally, also internationally. We want to become the center of expertise the world can count on.”
DCMC is sponsored by EFRO Opzuid, Province of North Brabant, and the RegioDeal Makes and Moves.
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