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Australian-first Aerostructures Innovation Research Hub Launched

The Swinburne University of Technology has launched an Australian-first Aerostructures Innovation Research Hub (AIR Hub) with the support of $12 million in funding from the Victorian Government. Led by Swinburne, AIR Hub will bring together the best of the region’s aerospace research, design and manufacturing leaders, including ANSTO, to work with industry on real-world design and manufacturing problems for the next generation of air mobility.

The Senior Principal Scientist at ANSTO stated that the agency will provide access to its unique range of capabilities to support the activities associated with the Aerostructures Innovation Research Hub (AIRHub). Both synchrotron techniques and nuclear techniques can be particularly useful in the study of advanced composites and advanced manufacturing processes that are associated with the aerospace industry.

Swinburne’s Vice-Chancellor and President stated that working closely with the aerospace industry, AIR Hub will create innovative materials and manufacturing processes for passenger planes, air cargo, as well as the space industry. It will also accelerate electric clean energy vertical take-off and landing air vehicles – or eVTOL – more widely known as ‘flying cars’ or electric helicopters.

AIR Hub is a truly global technology, research and manufacturing collaboration, with industry partners, plus research partners CSIRO, Monash University, ANSTO and Germany’s University of Stuttgart and ARENA 2036 combining with Swinburne’s research teams.

AIR Hub is working on ‘light-weighting’ and automating the production of space systems like the rockets used to launch satellites. Light-weighting, the manufacturing of parts to achieve better fuel efficiency and handling, and faster production could save thousands of dollars per launch, opening up business opportunities in the lucrative global space industry for Australian companies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones could travel further to deliver supplies to remote places, and eVTOL could become the future in a ‘flying Uber’ concept of transportation. As part of the design and manufacturing process, AIR Hub will use artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, machine learning and collaborative robots to support Australia’s world-leading capabilities to manufacture aerostructures.

Aircraft manufacturing and repair services in Australia generated revenue of over US$2 billion in 2020, reflecting a substantial decline of approximately 45% in total revenue from a peak in 2015-16. The decline has been apparent each year since 2015-16 and is driven by a mix of factors including cheaper offshore options and also a preference to centralize some maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) activities overseas in the U.S.  Exports have been climbing modestly but steadily until 2020-21 when they fell substantially by some 35%. Imports had been increasingly steadily also until 2020-21 when they fell by 20%.

Overall, it has been a long-term trend of declining local MRO activity with a growing reliance on imports, interrupted only by the worldwide downturn in the aviation sector in 2020. However forward projections point to confidence in domestic aviation travel returning to full capacity in 2022 and a shift in industry focus towards ordering smaller aircraft.

Despite international travel being the most negatively impacted and unlikely to return to full capacity for some years, Australian airline fleet upgrades will likely result in continued high imports, especially as airlines led by Qantas focus on trailing ultra-long-haul flights. Lightweight parts made of composite materials may also be a bright spot as they can lift aircraft fuel efficiency.

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