Lufthansa Technik (LHT) has decided to close its aircraft painting facility in Hamburg and, as a result, has stopped the development of a laser-based paint stripping system for composite aerostructures.
The maintenance provider had been working on an automatic system which would overcome the labour-intensive and difficult process of manually removing paint from composites.
While chemical strippers can be used on metallic surfaces, this is not possible on composite because the solvents would damage the synthetic material.
Paint manufacturers developed special paint systems for composite areas, which employ an intermediate layer between the primer and topcoats. This intermediate layer can be dissolved with mild strippers, taking away the visible topcoat while leaving the primer in place without affecting the underlying composites.
However, Franz-Josef Kirschfink, LHT's director of technology projects, pointed out that manual sanding would still be required if an aircraft sustains damage beneath this layer.
The company had been experimenting with laser technology and developing a control mechanism to move a laser head automatically over the surface. The ultimate aim was to design a robotic system that could automatically strip entire aircraft.
"Modern lasers can achieve much higher removal rates than was previously possible," said Kirschfink. "This equipment works faster and more precisely because the laser recognises which paint layer it is stripping away."
However, LHT states in the December issue of its internal staff newspaper that it will cease painting aircraft at its Hamburg base in May 2012 owing to "fierce international competition, continuously falling market prices and lack of profitability".
The laser project, part-funded by the German government, has consequently been put on hold.
LHT said the closure would not lead to redundancies. Of the 90 employees working at the painting facility, 30 will be affected by "significant changes". However, the company said it would help these staff members find new employment within the company.
The painting hangar, built in the early 1990s and equipped with the modern environmental protection systems, will be used for VIP completions from the summer of 2012.