Lufthansa Technik Develops AutoInspect Robot

Lufthansa Technik launched in 2011 the AutoInspect research project with the primary objective to develop a technology to fully automate crack detection and assessment in combustor components. The application of robot and automated inspection procedures will provide immediate benefits reflected in significantly reduced inspection time, drastic decrease in energy-intensive inspection processes, and considerable drop off in performing to some extend ecologically harmful inspection.

Global Leader

Lufthansa Technik is a huge global aviation company. The German giant has established reputation to deliver what is promised. The world’s largest MRO delivers superior quality and easily attracts best industry talent. The company serves the biggest and the most demanding customers worldwide. A proven superior customer management gives the company an edge in attracting new customers and in maintaining existing client base. A superior corporate culture with a highly developed DNA to think outside the box on hourly bases makes Lufthansa Technik to epitomize all organizational traits the aviation industry needs to function efficiently and safely and naturally equips the company to become the industry trend setter.

Turbine Engine

Picture 1
AutoInspect robot will replace human soon

AutoInspect Robot

Lufthansa Technik launched in 2011 the AutoInspect research project with the primary objective to develop a technology to automate fully crack detection and assessment in combustor components. Although it might sound like an unrealistic expectation to bring to life a project of such a caliber, the decision-makers at Lufthansa Technik perfectly understand present and future industry challenges and the necessity to become visionary leaders to provide a next generation technology. While the present combustor component inspection methods prove to be sufficient and reliable, their disadvantage comes from the fact they are extremely labor intensive, require highly experienced and knowledgeable technical human input, and call for the extreme attention to details. Some readers might pause for a second now and ask what the present inspection method is based on. I really like a provided explanation on the Lufthansa Technik website in a “Tracking Down a Crack” article:

The dye penetration test that is currently used is an industry-wide established procedure that is employed for crack-testing a number of (engine) components. It involves several stages. The first step is to thoroughly clean and dry the test objects. The penetrant, a penetrating oil containing fluorescent paint pigments, is then applied to the surface of the test object. Capillary action forces it into even the finest cracks. Excess penetrant is now removed and the test object is dried again. Next the test object is sprayed with a developer (a special chalk-based powder), which sucks up any penetrant contained in the cracks so that it can be seen by the human eye. The evaluation is then performed under ultraviolet lighting, which accentuates the contrasting fluorescent paint pigments, making them easier to identify.

It does not take a rocket science to realize the present method has a very small margin error, and its major challenge lies in achieving repeatedly highly accurate and consistent results. Since a human performance might occasionally deviate from expected results, the application of artificial intelligence has proven to deliver the results of high accuracy, consistency, and predictability, hence, Lufthansa Technik took a bold decision to develop AutoInspect robot to automate inspection procedures for engine components. The complexity of the project calls for a strong and committed collaboration to capitalize fully on cross industrial knowledge. Consequently Lufthansa Technik has managed to find right partners and with the support of the Department of Business, Transport and Innovation of the City of Hamburg the German company successfully develops an innovative crack test method. Nothing convinces better than seeing something unrealistic in action.

Video 1
AutoInspect robot in action

White Light Interferometry Technology

The research and development of the new technology is based on the principles of white light interferometry (WLI), and the technology has been utilized for the first time by an industrial robot. The complexity of the AutoInspect project has many challenges, and its primary objective is to achieve consistent and reproducible perfection in generating digital geometry and damage information. The data obtained from those two tasks is indispensable to further automate repair processes such a welding and milling. The application of robots and fully automated inspection procedures will provide immediate benefits reflected in significantly reduced inspection time, drastic decrease in energy-intensive inspection processes, and considerable drop off in performing to some extend ecologically harmful inspection. The ultimate result is to develop a single step fully automated “green” inspection process. Lufthansa Technik has already developed the technology to commercialize the AutoInspect project to further increase process reliability and productivity.

Autoinspect demonstrator

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Under the innovative procedure process reliability
and productivity can be increased further.

I want to come back for a while to the AutoInspect project, and its white light interferometry principles. I need to confess I wanted to understand and to start appreciating the WLI technology more from its scientific perspective. The more I read about the WLI technology, the more complex it has been becoming to comprehend it in terms of the AutoInspect application. I have also been looking to find out a simple explanation what the WLI technology is about, and the more I looked for it, the more complex explanation I was able to find. Ultimately, I have decided to quote a super brief and straightforward WLI explanation taken from WIKIPEDIA to clarify what the WLI technology is about:

White light interferometry is a non-contact optical method for surface height measurement on 3-D structures with surface profiles varying between tens of nanometers and a few centimeters. It is often used as an alternative name for coherence scanning interferometry in the context of areal surface topography instrumentation that relies on spectrally-broadband, visible-wavelength light (white light).

While the above concise explanation gives us a quick picture what the WLI technology does, I opted for an additional clarification to increase our further understanding and appreciation of the AutoInspect robot and its automated inspection processes. In writing the additional WLI explanation states:

The topography measurement is based on a technique called white light interferometry that scans the surface height of the test object. To achieve this, a beam-splitter divides the beam coming from a white light source into two parts. The reference beam is reflected from a reference plane, while the measurement beam is incident on the test object. When changing the distance between the sample and the interferometer, optical interference occurs at every point of the surface where the optical path length is exactly the same for the reference and the measurement beam. During the vertical scan, the interference patterns are captured by the video camera while the software computes the topography from this data.

On the other hand, the same explanation can be backed up by a well-done video about the WLI principles:

Video 2
Scanning White-Light Interferometry
How does it work?

Top executives at Lufthansa Technik recognize the benefits the company could achieve by becoming the only MRO offering a service of such a high quality and reliability. The first mover advantage will definitely arm the company with another competitive advantage. In order to protect as much as possible the innovative and cutting edge technology, the application for an international patent has been already filed. While I have not heard or read turbine engine manufacturers express an interest in the AutoInspect technology, I cannot see original equipment manufacturers (OEM) will ignore or overlook the benefits the new technology could offer to airplane operators.

Regardless how advanced technology is utilized in the AutoInspect project development, some people might rise rhetorical questions what drawbacks the new inspection method might offer.

Do you agree the AutoInspect automated inspection processes for engine components might negatively impact human judgment development in cases in which an artificial intelligence cannot be utilized?

Do you think the AutoInspect technology will cut off man power requirements?

Do you expect the AutoInspect technology will increase or reduce engine inspection prices?

References

Kenney, R. (2015). Watch a Robot Automate Inspection Procedures for Engine Components. Retrieved on June 18, 2015 from the World Wide Web: http://aviationweek.com/mro/watch-robot-automate-inspection-procedures-engine-components

Lufthansa Technik. Tracking Down a Crack – Automated Inspection Procedure for Engine Components. Retrieved on June 18, 2015 from the World Wide Web: http://www.lufthansa-technik.com/autoinspect

Polytec.(2012). Basic Priciples Scanning White-Light Interferometry. Retrieved on June 18, 2015 from the World Wide Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nh_nR8_WuY8

WIKIPEDIA. White Light Interferometry. Retrieved on June 18, 2015 from the World Wide Web: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_light_interferometry

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I am an aviation professional and a creative opportunity maker with never-ending drive to learn and explore. I have an enjoyable aviation career since 2001 and work presently as a landing gear manager for a leading Canadian maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) aircraft approved organization (AMO). I had an opportunity to work for two airlines where I gained a solid aircraft knowledge and experience working as an aircraft technician. I also had a privilege to earn both, undergraduate and graduate degrees, from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, FL, USA. I also graduated from an aircraft maintenance program from Centennial College, Scarborough, ON, Canada. I always am ready to have a good conversation and to connect with my former co-workers and new friends. I can easily be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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