Virtual engineers in space project

Computer-simulated engineers are to be used to improve satellite manufacturing processes, as part of a research project funded by space technology firm Astrium.

Researchers from Sheffield Hallam University have won a contract from spacecraft manufacturer Astrium to build digital- simulation models to replicate its satellite assembly process.

As part of this simulation the researchers will model in detail the actions of the company’s production team, to find ways of improving the process.

Reducing delays

Computer simulation is already heavily used in design within the automotive and aerospace industries. But this research should offer a new insight into the way humans operate during any assembly process, helping to eliminate risks and reduce costly delays, said Terrence Perera, project leader and professor of manufacturing systems at Sheffield Hallam.

‘The difficulty in making satellites is that you are trying to cram so many components into such a small place, so people often find problems when putting them together – either there is not enough space, or the sequence is wrong. We will be trying to eliminate those problems at the design stage.’

Computer simulation is the only tool that can analyse complex assembly operations in such detail, said Perera. ‘Astrium’s managers and engineers will use 3D animated displays and output information from the model to fine-tune their operations and find the best solution to any given process problem,’ he said.

By simulating human production teams researchers will be able to break the assembly process down into individual tasks, to identify cycle times and any potential problems before the company begins manufacturing its satellites.

In the past companies had to produce a physical prototype before they could assess their assembly processes, said Perera. ‘We can now do this in a digital environment, which will make the process much cheaper in the long term, and will also be much quicker.’

Assembly processes

The team, which has also worked on projects in other engineering sectors, as well as postal and service industries, recently finished a three-year programme with BAE Systems to simulate factory and assembly processes in the design and manufacture of aircraft frames.

Astrium was lead contractor on the Envisat satellite, launched today by the European Space Agency. The satellite will spend at least the next five years orbiting the earth and monitoring changes to the atmosphere, land and seas.