In rural Upper Austria, nestled next to the train tracks in the quiet town of Attnang-Puchheim, sparks are flying inside a large grey former warehouse. Robotic arms are whirring and computer terminals are buzzing. Futuristic plasma technology is being put to work on our journey to an aviation sector built around circular economy principles.
Founded in 1994, INOCON is one of the region’s leading experts in specialist manufacturing machinery for various welding and brazing techniques, in particular their patented PLASMATRON® process. Furthermore, the firm won the Upper-Austrian Innovation Prize in 2018, while being included in the top 6 of the Austrian national-level award. It’s little surprise then that they were brought in as a member of the consortium behind SUSTAINair, where INOCON plays a keystone role in the development of know-how and specialist equipment for use in the process of building sensors that can be integrated into aviation components.
What does sensor technology have to do with reducing aviation’s carbon footprint?
One of the central aims of SUSTAINair is to increase aerodynamic efficiency and maintain safety while introducing component designs that are quite literally more flexible, such as wings with morphing capabilities. This could provide a key input towards increasing efficiency and reducing in-flight carbon emissions. The catch, however: imagine a flexible component, comprising carbon fibres, subject to wear and tear, carrying passengers millions of miles through the air?
To put it another way, picture a dent in a car compared to damaged carbon fibres inside the body of an aircraft. While the former is plain for all to see, the latter could remain entirely out of sight until it’s far too late – and the component totally fails.
So how best to monitor the health of these new pieces? Our concept is to integrate the sensors into the components themselves. Of the various work packages that make up SUSTAINair’s research, INOCON’s focus is mostly on Work Package 3: Generation of cost efficient, large, flexible, and integrable Sensors or SHM [Structural Health Monitoring] systems. In short, their brief is to provide the project with the manufacturing capabilities necessary to make this whole system work; to build sensors that can be integrated into a component and let us know when it’s time for a component to be fixed or replaced.
The Power of Plasma
There are already 2 variants of plasma coating technology offered by INOCON, with slightly different capabilities strengths: InoCoat 3 (IC3) & Micro Cold Plasma (MCP). In essence, this specialist machinery is able to spray ultra-fine layers of a variety of materials – and material combinations – onto an even broader variety of surfaces. Thus, ultra-fine layers of zinc, copper, ceramics, or silver can be applied to not only metals, but papers and films, accurate to within a few micrometres (μm) or even nanometres (nm). Therefore, no harmful nano-particles are necessary.
Photo Credit: © INOCON
INOCON is already working with various applications of this technique, including implementing hydrophobic or anti-corrosive layers onto materials. The variant of zinc oxide important to the development of sensors like those of importance to SUSTAINair haven’t been a focal point as of yet though for INOCON, so their participation in this EU-funded consortium has provided the key spark to troubleshoot the process. The first round of feedback and testing, conducted in conjunction with the preoject partner Joanneum Reseach have already led to a tweaked new design for the plasma torch, increasing the input of oxygen and vastly improving the formulation of the zinc oxide and thus its function as a sensor.
The Importance of Participating in European R&D
Currently, INOCON is involved in several EU Projects in addition to SUSTAINair, including manufacturing-focused Horizon 2020 project MULTI-FUN and another one putting their tech to use to apply biocidal coatings (imagine if ventilation systems could literally neutralise bacterial and viral threats by mere surface contact!) It’s still a relatively new part of their business, however the team see it as an essential one.
As a business, the headline benefit is most likely from funding’s ability to open up the chance to conduct research that would otherwise never be deemed viable. Besides innovation though, INOCON also relishes the chance to build long-term cooperations wherever possible, and this is never stronger than in research projects like SUSTAINair, where European partners can strengthen their ties while building a better future – in economic, environmental, and technological terms.