ZAL TechCenter


The world wants more comfortable aircraft, quieter aircraft, more fuel-efficient aircraft – but most of all, it wants many, many, many new aircraft. In 2014 Airbus and Boeing each recorded orders totalling more than 1,400 new aircraft, yet they made only 629 and 723 customer deliveries, respectively. Supporting production ramp-ups is imperative for both major airframers, and big gains in efficiency are needed all-around if they hope to keep pace with demand. Lean management, fresh thinking and even unorthodox means could well be critical to the success of these endeavors, for as the saying goes, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get where you’ve always gotten.’

In Hamburg, the world’s third-largest aviation cluster site and the seat of Airbus’s operations and production in Germany, a radical and exciting project is in motion that could change how we approach the process of aeronautical innovation. Many believe this venture will dramatically increase supplier cooperation to reduce development costs and lead times on the back of streamlined component integration, particularly in the area of cabins, cabin systems and hydrogen fuel cells.

The ZAL Center for Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL being an acronym for Zentrum für Angewandte Luftfahrtfoschung) is currently under construction in Hamburg’s Finkenwerder district and is to be the nerve center of this project. The impressive €82 million building is scheduled for completion at the end of 2015 and should be operational by early 2016. The ZAL ‘TechCenter’, as it is most commonly called, will bring dozens of previously segregated supply chain enterprises and academic and research institutions together with Airbus under one roof. It is hoped that by providing a safe and cooperative environment for the free exchange of ideas, along with advanced testing frameworks available for rent, innovation will come hard and fast.

“When you’re a company developing a new product, in the beginning it’s all ideas and paperwork, but there comes a stage when you need to integrate that product or idea into the complete aircraft structure and systems,” explains Roland Gerhards, CEO at ZAL. “Because we will be sharing this test infrastructure, and because people will be able to rent it rather than buy it, costs will be reduced for smaller companies – and even bigger ones.”

There are nine main shareholders in the ZAL TechCenter, a number that increases to 200 if you consider companies that belong to bigger shareholder organizations. Airbus, Lufthansa Technik and the city of Hamburg each have a 20% stake, while two representative industry groups – the National Aeronautics and Space Research Center of Germany, and the Association for the Promotion of Applied Aviation Research – hold 18% and 10%, respectively. Four regional universities that are heavily invested in aviation and fuel cell research hold 3% each, creating a good balance of industrial, political and educational involvement. It is by design that no single entity has been allowed to possess more than a 20% interest in the TechCenter, as this keeps it an SME (small to medium-sized enterprise) and not a subsidiary of another entity.

Airbus gets in early

“The ZAL TechCenter comprises modern offices, meeting areas, laboratories and hangar space. A modern architecture integrates these services into the building concept,” says Fabian von Gleich, Airbus’s head of the Hamburg site’s strategy and development. “Airbus has committed to supporting ZAL since its foundation. This way of working will greatly accelerate and improve the results of our research activities. We do not expect any commercial benefit to come out of ZAL GmbH. What we expect instead is that it will increase speed and agility to bring innovation into the product.”

Airbus has agreed to rent just over 50% of the 26,000 sq.m. workspace available at the facility and will move its entire 300-person research and technology team into the building. The airframer and Lufthansa Technik have both committed to donating advanced equipment including generic test rigs, full-sized mock-ups and utilities that all renters and researchers will have access to, starting in 2016. Up to 25 companies will be working simultaneously at the location.

In many ways, the TechCenter’s office and meeting spaces are inspired by successful Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google and Facebook, which are famous for designing work environments conducive to brainstorming and creativity.

Above: The open construction of the building is intended to encourage communication between the various tenants and visitors

“The TechCenter think-tank culture will promote our joint and combined approach,” says von Gleich of Airbus’s own modularly planned office space within the structure. “An innovative workplace environment will support a new way of working by offering flexibility and dedicated areas for very specific tasks. Based on an in-depth analysis of our needs, we have created the right mix of formal and spontaneous meeting zones, communication and concentration areas, as well as short- and long-term project ‘war rooms’.”

Shaped in a large ‘U’, the facility sits about 1.1 miles (1.8km) from the Airbus final production line, but not on Airbus property. This means that people working or participating in research at the TechCenter can take advantage of Airbus’s extensive employee transport networks (buses, ferries, etc), yet avoid the quite rigorous security screening necessary to enter an Airbus site. As collaboration between organizations is the name of the game for ZAL, other details of the building are planned accordingly.

“We will not have doors everywhere. The whole layout of the building is centralized around communication, communication, communication. The hangar space is open, with a large gallery that looks down inside it. We will have many windows and glass fronts, plus a glass façade on the outside of the building,” explains Gerhards. He understands that this culture of sharing will initially make some people nervous. “Of course we need to protect intellectual property, that is clear, but we can’t do that to the very end. That’s what we think the 21st century should be all about – not only creating ideas but also exchanging them and bringing them forward in this way.”

Diehl is on board

A number of influential parties, especially those involved in cabins and cabin systems, are keen to get on board. First-tier Airbus supplier Diehl Aerosystems has been part of the conversation since the early days of the project and has pledged to rent space in the TechCenter alongside key players such as Lufthansa Technik, Zodiac Aerospace, Siemens, Parker Fuel Cell and the Technical University of Hamburg. Tenants are now in place for 80% of the space.

“One of the deliverabilities of ZAL is a cooperation agreement accepted by all participants. Based on this, intellectual property should not be the major concern. IP ownership is no basis for success in itself – rather, it is a means to secure industrial success,” says David Voskuhl, vice president of communication for Diehl. “Diehl Aerosystems will focus on the integration aspects of the overall aircraft system. A fuselage section in the form of a full barrel will be available to facilitate this approach. Working with other suppliers, academia and institutes under the supervision of an OEM will reduce developmental risks, such as late or non-availability of test beds and late design changes. This is a good opportunity to extend the front-loading aspects of concurrent engineering into research and technology.”

Above: According to the builders, the center is as complex as a hospital, with everything connected. Image copyright Kalay Anlagenbau

The fuselage Voskuhl speaks of will be totally modular, with the flexibility to serve as a single-aisle or wide-body text rig, complete with cargo hold. The TechCenter will also boast about 5,000 sq.m. of hangar space, an acoustics chamber, a hydrogen and fuel cell lab, various other labs, an environmental control and power systems zone, meeting rooms, places to conduct market research, video conferencing suites, a virtual reality room, and a modular auditorium with seating for 200 people. The auditorium will have a double-floor construction, so it can be adapted for the installation of computer workstations that can relay visualizations through a server and onto the very large screen at the front of the hall.

Another of the more interesting spaces is a smaller one to the immediate right of the main entrance. The Innovation Marketplace will be an attraction of sorts, a 500 sq.m. space where TechCenter tenants can exhibit new developments and garner feedback, anonymously or otherwise, from other workers and guests.

In early 2015, rental agreements were still being drafted between ZAL and the 10 or so renters that have already committed to taking space in the TechCenter. Although it was still too early for Voskuhl to reveal precise details about the number of people that Diehl would station at the TechCenter and for how long, or in how much office space, he did say this: “ZAL is the only institution of its kind in Germany and it will provide a great opportunity for research in Hamburg. Since two Diehl Aerosystems units are based in Hamburg, and with a lot of research and technology organizations and potential in close proximity, synergies are expected to materialize more quickly here than in any other place.”

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