ZAL TechCenter: A shining example of industry progress and collaboration

Roland Gerhards, CEO of the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research, interviewed by Ryan Ghee.

Roland Gerhards, CEO of the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research: “The ZAL TechCenter provides the umbrella, under which the commercial and academic sectors will work together on the future of aviation.”

In the air transport industry, some organisations pay lip service to “innovation” and “collaboration” but the reality is often quite different. We live in a world in which every new product or service is described as “innovative”, and protecting individual business interests often outweighs the desire to collaborate more closely for the benefit of the wider industry.

When the ZAL TechCenter was officially opened in Hamburg in March 2016, the 26,000sqm facility was lauded as “the world’s most up-to-date civilian aviation research facility”. Roland Gerhards, CEO of the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research, proclaims: “The ZAL TechCenter provides the umbrella, under which the commercial and academic sectors will work together on the future of aviation.”

So, two years after ZAL opened its doors, is the facility really delivering on these grand promises?

The impressive facility includes laboratories,hangars, a virtual reality zone, an auditorium,trendy meeting rooms, and shared office space. ZAL is not a place for just talking about innovation; it is a place where pioneering ideas are being brought to life.

By its very make-up, ZAL is designed to promote collaboration. The City of Hamburg, Airbus Operations and Lufthansa Technik each own a 20% share, and the other shareholders are ZAL Association for SMEs, Supply Chain and Startups; German Aerospace Centre (DLR); Technical University Hamburg-Harburg; University of Applied Sciences; Helmut-Schmidt University; and University of Hamburg. “The shareholders cover the complete process chain,” Gerhards highlights. At the ZAL TechCenter, the innovation partners, research institutes, technology partners, and OEMs and suppliers all operate under one roof.

Gerhards describes the six Technical Domains that are at the heart of the R&D being undertaken at the ZAL TechCenter. These are: Fuel Cell Lab; Cabin Innovation & Technology; Air & Power Systems; Aerospace Production & Fuselage Engineering; Acoustics & Vibrations; and General Processes & Support Topics.

ZAL has its very own virtual reality lab, where ideas and concepts can be brought to life using VR technology.

“There are some cool things coming out of ZAL after nearly two years,” he states. Examples are plentiful and among them is the Galley-Bar-Module, which was created by Diehl Comfort Modules with Lufthansa Technik and was a Crystal Cabin Award finalist in 2017. Also, two of the four IDL – Innovation Award of German Aerospace winners in 2017 were teams from ZAL. One was an Airbus team focusing on printed electrics and the other was start-up Jetlite for its jet lag-reducing LED lighting.

Gerhards also explains how steps are being taken to promote collaboration on a daily basis; after all, simply putting various
companies in the same building or the same room does not necessarily guarantee that they will work more closely with one another. On this front, ZAL proactively organises a variety of events.

For instance, “ZAL Meet the Tenant” allows tenants to introduce their research projects to other stakeholders, and the “X Meets Aviation” series brings partners together to explore cross-sector synergies.

There is also a focus on promoting networking in a relaxed environment through initiatives such as the “ZAL Lunch Connection” and “ZAL After Work” get-togethers to ensure that people have a chance to meet other innovators from outside of their immediate circle.

“It is all about the spirit of the people. We hope to offer the right environment for them to be innovative and they have the freedom from management to do that. They have to have the freedom to play around and explore new ideas,” Gerhards concludes.

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