The ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research is researching ideas for aviation. In an interview with, Managing Director Roland Gerhards talks about the increasing cooperation between man and machine and explains how this will help aircraft production.

Under the motto "research and development under one roof", the Hamburg Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL) brings industry and science together. It is precisely this combination that can be used to develop new technologies for the aviation industry, says managing director Roland Gerhards. In an interview with, the manager explains how the ZAL brings together the different companies, from start-ups to big players, how to create acceptance for innovations among the specialists and why the subject of robotics and automation will be major topics in the aviation industry in the coming years. Mr. Gerhards, the second "ZAL Innovation Days" will take place on the 27th and 28th of February. This time it's about robotics and automation. Why this topic?

Roland Gerhards: We believe that the combination of aviation and robotics to be one of the most topical subjects in aviation. Robotics and automation are predestined to improve and develop aircraft production. Unlike the automotive industry, where automation has been standard for several years, robotics is still its infancy in the aircraft industry. We also believe that the discussion will take a different direction for aircraft production.

What will this other direction be?

Man and machines will work together in aircraft production. Unlike the automotive industry, humans will not be replaced by robots to a great extent. Robots will make the work easier and provide support for people. This will be necessary, especially in light of the increasing rates in aircraft production. This increase in output will not be achieved by upping the number of skilled workers; people and machines will work together more closely, better and more efficiently.

Since when has automation been an integral part of aircraft production?

The whole question has to be differentiated a bit: There are of course areas in the aviation industry that have been automated for a long time, for example, the parts production or the aircraft fuselage skin assembly. For example, Airbus uses riveting robots for its Hamburg production. What is new is that for the last three or four years, people and robots have been working together. However, this has only been possible since the sensors have been developed enough so that robots can not injure people under any circumstances.

Introducing our interview partner

Roland Gerhards spent 15 years at Airbus in Hamburg and Toulouse in various positions, including Head of Cabin Design Electrics A380. Since May 2012, he has been Managing Director of the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL), headquartered in Hamburg-Finkenwerder.

Exactly should we imagine this human-machine cooperation?

For example, a robot can pass tools or materials to people. Specifically, this means that if the worker needs new rivets, he requests them via a tablet or, in the future, via voice control. Robots then autonomously bring the appropriate materials to the worker. The worker can carry on his highly specialized activities - without being forced to interrupt his work. At Airbus, two of these robots are currently in use on the Hamburg assembly line.

That sounds like an real increase in efficiency?

This will of course make the work more efficient. There are also advantages for the worker, because another development that is being worked on in the ZAL is the exoskeleton. With this tool, the human body, for example hand or arm strength, can be assisted mechanically. Naturally, this is a real advantage when there is a high level of repetition. Think about the installation overhead bins. The first one is okay - but after twentieth, things start to look a lot different.

What do you think the long-term development will be?

There will be more and more smart robots, so-called Cobots. Cobots stands for 'collaborative robots' - robots that work with people. We won’t see people being replaced. I am positive that robotics will not cost jobs - just the opposite; we have to carefully protect the professionals we have. Aircraft construction is and remains demanding and time-consuming, so robots are currently being developed that will work together with humans. We are still at the beginning; this will keep us busy for the next ten to fifteen years.

Man and machine working together - do technicians accept robots as partners?

Yes, definitely, but the way we go about it is important. It is essential to involve the people concerned in technological progress. At the ZAL TechCenter, for example, mechanics can try out the innovations directly and report what they think is comfortable or on the contrary, what is impractical. This will give new solutions a much higher acceptance in later use.

Have all the solutions you have mentioned been developed at ZAL?

The 'ZAL TechCenter' has existed for exactly three years. As a matter of fact, many of the solutions were actually developed in our facility. We currently have 35 companies researching and developing together in our building. These include Airbus and Lufthansa Technik as well as start-ups, such as Synergeticon or, and then we have ZAL GmbH, which also conducts research. We have just developed a battery robot that automatically replenishes batteries at Lufthansa Technik. The robot can do that autonomously without a person having to do it with a pipette.

How long did it take to develop the robot?

It took six months from the first idea to the implementation. We are now in the process of getting it ready for use in the industry. It can then be built repeatedly in future. The pure development phase didn’t take more than six to nine months.

That sounds pretty fast.

Yes, that is also one of our goals at the ZAL. As a center for applied aviation research, it is our job to put ideas into practice fast and then to get them onto the market. Our goal is that aviation can benefit quickly, but also to make quick money. This is our mission here in the 'ZAL TechCenter'. We do that with various partners.

Do you actively network with these companies?

Yes, we do - very actively. With the creation of the 'TechCenter', we have launched the Aviation Research Network and are actively trying, with two dozen formats, to connect companies. It is not always the experts in the same field, whom you probably already know, who can help you find a solution to a problem. We believe that it is the networking of different companies and departments which drives the development of innovation - and that's exactly what we support.

The Event

The first "ZAL Innovation Days" took place in November 2017 - at that time the topic was "Innovation & Platform Collaboration”. On February 27th and 28th, 2019, we will host this event for the second time – the topic this time is, “Robotics & Advanced Automation”. Approximately 140 -160 participants are expected to attend. The patron of the event is the aviation coordinator of the Federal Government, Thomas Jarzombek. The keynote will be held by robotics pioneer Peter Haas from Brown University. Participants can look forward not only to lectures, but also workshops, guided tours and an exhibition. A highlight will be the foosball-table robot, which will demonstrate what is already possible with artificial intelligence.

What exactly can we expect?

One aspect will be our “lunch connection”, a kind of blind date for four. Another is the 'ZAL Innovation Days'. These each address a current industry topic at technical level, so that it appeals to international audiences and international speakers.

What other developments took place, or will take place in future, at the ZAL?

As already mentioned, ZAL is pushing forward with the exoskeleton. As ZAL GmbH, we are currently testing a robot programmed with 'Machine Learning': it can tell whether it is passing a person or a table. If it is a person, the robot makes a bigger curve around them. In the past, a robot would simply stand still in front of obstacles. The goal is of course, that the robot gets to its destination on time. In another project, we are currently working on the combination of robots and 3D printing. The goal here is that in the future, you can print on existing material. That is currently in very high demand.

Mr. Gerhards, thank you for the interview.

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