Images of exciting and futuristic-looking aircraft might capture the imagination of the next generation of would-be aerospace engineers, but the most spectacular game-changing technology involved in the development of new aircraft and systems can’t be seen by looking at the end result of the programs. It occurs, of course, throughout the design and manufacturing phases and extends into the through-life sustainment of the equipment in service.
Highly sophisticated computer-generated virtual reality software now enables a new product to be designed, evaluated, tested for performance and practicality (including maintenance and servicing), and, of increasing importance, it allows a customer to look at every detail before it is made and assembled.
Industrial partners in a program, who may be next door or thousands of miles away, can share all the appropriate program information, viewing the product and changes in the design in real time so that at all stages of a development program the design is presented in an up-to-date state and to a common specification. The availability of CAD and CAM has transformed how modern aircraft, missiles, engines, and components are created and brought to market, and extend into crew training and engineering education, greatly reducing the costs and length of time taken to prepare personnel in the design, manufacturing, and support stages.
A company with leading status in the provision of digital platforms and the associated advanced software is Dassault Systèmes, and it has now taken the technology to even higher levels with its 3D Experience program platform tools. The way that tomorrow’s products are designed and built is destined to change even more radically, as the new virtual reality tools are applied to the use of new materials. The whole virtual concept is taking on a new direction as it is also seen as an essential management tool that can become a disruptive opportunity to link with globally networked communities.
In earlier eras where aircraft were less sophisticated this timescale could be achieved within a few years, sometimes as little as four or five years for an all-new airplane. Today’s highly complex aircraft feature integrated systems and many embedded sensors that must all be tested in extreme environmental and operational conditions. This development and testing activity could potentially be carried out while the electronic systems technology is advancing far faster than the overall program itself, so that typically a new fighter/attack aircraft may now take over 20 years to reach initial operating service. Trying to ensure that it is not obsolete by the time it reaches this stage is a major challenge for the manufacturers as well as the customer who understandably wishes to incorporate as many new features as possible along the way.
When the Eurofighter Typhoon was first designed in the 1990s it represented the latest technology in aerodynamics and systems capability, but by the time it entered service with customer air forces around 15 years later it was already in need of an update for its radar and weapons systems. The same was true in its closest rival European combat aircraft, the Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen. New synthetic aperture radar systems, digital cockpits, and sensors led to major upgrades to keep these aircraft competitive, and at the same time similar upgrades were also being applied to U.S.-manufactured combat jets including the F15, F16, and F-18. The flexibility in these platforms allowed customers to keep on flying and using these aircraft long after they might have been considered to be in need of replacement, and that is why they are still mostly in production today, after a production life that started in the 1970s.
Today, building expensive pre-prototype mock-ups is no longer necessary as all the key design aims can be achieved using synthetic environments. Designing an aircraft’s cockpit or passenger cabin interior are just two obvious example where the new technology can be used to evaluate different options. The availability of 3D simulations allows participants to become fully immersed in the virtual world where body-mounted sensors allows them to even pick up simulated objects and move them around, open access panels and doors, or operate controls.
The development of helmet-mounted displays and head-up displays introduces additional technical challenges into the cockpit environment, fully integrating the many sensors that are available to increase pilots’ situational awareness. There is a danger that so many new capabilities might over-load the pilot with information and result in confusion, so keeping the use of these systems as user-friendly and simple as possible is a major requirement. This issue has become particularly important in the commercial market where today’s digital cockpit displays are highly automated but where pilots still need to retain conventional manual flying skills for quick-reaction responses in emergencies.
Artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in the mission systems being designed for aircraft of the future, but over-reliance on automation in safety-critical situations is recognized as an issue and the role of the human operator in the overall man-machine interface is unlikely to be supplanted for many decades. It is far more likely to arrive via military aircraft applications before the commercial air transport world is ready to sell tickets for an unmanned airplane.
Up until now planning detailed design and subsequent changes and modifications has been possible in two dimensions, on-screen, but the latest Dassault 3DExperience platform is enabling new designs to be envisaged and evaluated with engineers and customers able to be fully immersed in the processes using special visors and integrated control tools. Alongside these virtual design tools is the development of additive manufacturing (AM), making strong and complex components by laying down successive layers of raw material such as metal powders or plastic polymers instead of casting or molding parts and then drilling or shaping them.
The AM method of manufacturing allows some items to be made for the first time that couldn’t be made at all using conventional manufacturing methods. Early examples that show improved solutions include specialist engine parts, such as air-cooled blades and fuel nozzles that can be made in one piece instead of assembling separate cast parts. This 3D technology is advancing rapidly, especially in the manufacture of aircraft components, reducing weight and material waste, increasing strength, simplifying assembly, and making the product easier to maintain.
Most exciting, taken to extremes, is the prospect of highly unconventional aircraft designs integrating more systems into the molecular-like structures, copying nature. As well as commercial next-generation jetliners, new sixth generation combat aircraft, both manned or unmanned, will be designed within such a 3D virtual environment and this may eventually see the transformation of the defense sector as well as the commercial aircraft industry. Such radical developments are essential to break the cycle of cost escalation in the defense market, where replacing current fleets of aircraft is becoming unaffordable for many nations.
Airbus is accelerating the use of AM for prototypes as well as production components, delivering lighter and less expensive parts that meet the required technological performance, safety, and cost standards.
According to Robert Nardini, Senior Vice President Engineering Airframe, Airbus believes that AM is a game changer in many areas, such as remote fabrication for support or maintenance, rapid prototyping for new concepts, and experiences and developing designs that were previously impossible to make. The company is using the 3DExperience platform’s next generation automated design assistant for part design but is a great enthusiast for this end-to-end solution as it covers all engineering parameters for the AM of parts inclusive of material science, functional specifications, generative design, 3D printing optimization, production, and certification.
Bringing together the single data source ensures that the technical and functional characteristics of a new product are linked and that every stakeholder in the loop works to that single reference with common up-to-date data that is fully compliant with the customers’ needs and throughout the participating companies. The Dassault 3DExperience platform manages all this data and processes it across the subsidiaries and project partners. It thus coordinates all levels of activity and allows for the inputs to, and results from, development testing to see progress and to trace previous actions.
The access to this evolving data stream is in real time so participants can be confident that their activities are not based on information that might have been changed somewhere else, by others, in the program. Where this platform has been adopted, such as by Safran Transmission Systems, product development and integration has enabled a quick and smooth deployment throughout the group, not only implementing the technical and industrial product solution, but has allowed for the simultaneous planning for the training of engineers who will maintain the system. The company has had a digital transformation policy in hand for some time and the adoption of 3DExperience has recorded a 30% productivity gain on configuration control tasks. It replaced outdated or independent IT applications that operated in silos, with an integrated system that simplified the whole process considerably, especially speeding up the task of incorporating design changes and synchronizing the development process.
The emerging technologies of AM and 3D printing extends well beyond manufacturing and is now part of what Dassault describes as hyperconnectivity. The world is increasingly interconnected across all domains. New hyperconnected business models will emerge as data is fused and distributed across the globe, and new, powerful communities will be formed to exchange ideas and solutions in real-time, regardless of where it is sourced.