Boeing has a long history in computer graphics technology development.
Six decades ago, before most people even knew what a computer was—let alone what it did—a Boeing illustrator and manager started calling the technical drawings they were creating electronically “computer graphics.”
The term stuck, and those employees—Verne Hudson and William Fetter—further popularized it throughout the early 1960s while describing how computer-based drawing could reduce cost while improving the design exploration taking place at Boeing’s plant in Wichita, Kansas.
That’s how and when computer graphics started to make computers easier for people to use. And ever-improving images are helping people better understand and interpret data produced from all of today’s computing applications including science, education, engineering, multimedia, finance and medicine.
From the beginnings of the computer age, Boeing has been active in creating, monitoring and intelligently applying the world’s most advanced computer graphics and visualization technology to the company’s engineering and operations functions.
Modern aircraft and aerospace systems are complex and have unique technical challenges and scale issues to overcome. So, when no one else could provide computing solutions, Boeing has found ways to move forward itself, said Anne Kao, a Boeing Senior Technical Fellow and expert in data and visual analytics.
“Over the years, our Boeing computing research and development team has been a competitive differentiator, helping the company to maintain its position,” Kao said.
“Having indigenous technical depth at Boeing has been essential in developing new capabilities in-house, as well as helping to evaluate technology from vendors and competitors,” added Jim Troy, a Boeing Associate Technical Fellow and expert in 3D visualization tools, haptics, human modeling, virtual reality, augmented reality, as well as custom robotics and measurement applications.
While much of the early development of computing technology was done at universities and government laboratories, Boeing became an early adopter of computers as standard tools for the core business of designing, developing and supporting commercial and military aerospace products.
“Boeing has invested heavily in computing technology,” said Dave Kasik, a Boeing Senior Technical Fellow emeritus and 3D graphics expert who developed the Boeing concepts for the first user interface management system, massive model visualization, visual analytics and others. “As a result, we have advanced the state-of-the-art in computing and enabled beyond state-of-the-art aerospace products.”
Boeing’s record of accomplishment in computer graphics technology development includes these milestones:
- Development in the 1960s of the first digital model of a human body for ergonomic design purposes.
- Pioneering research in the late 1970s for rendering B-spline surface geometry—B-spline surfaces digitally define the vast majority of Boeing products.
- Creation in the early 1980s of the first user interface management system to simplify programming for applications employing visualization.
- Early exploration in the late 1980s of ways to augment live direct or indirect views of physical, real-world environments with computer-generated input such as video and graphics data for potential use in manufacturing applications. This field is now known as “augmented reality”.
- Ground-breaking work in the early 1990s on design and development of large-scale 3D visualization tools that enabled users to virtually fly through aircraft. This led to the 777 being the first jetliner completely digitally designed in three-dimensions. The 777 was the first to be preassembled on computers, eliminating the need to build costly, full-scale physical mock-ups. It provided the basis for more-robust 3D visualization tools developed at Boeing that were essential to the creation and assembly of the 787 Dreamliner, KC-46A Pegasus Tanker, P-8A Poseidon and other aircraft.
- Formation of efficient 3D collision detection and response software (Voxmap PointShell) in the late 1990s to detect, in real-time during the design process, collisions between parts in large and complex environments, which also enabled real-time physics-based simulation for haptic force-feedback applications.
- Creation of “massive model visualization” (MMV) tools in the early 2000s that gave Boeing-developed 3D visualization applications the capacity to interactively view an entire airplane in a single session. MMV gives users access to significantly more data now available for efficient design, assembly and support.
- Recent advances in visual analytics that enable the rapid exploration of large, complex datasets to gain new business insight and take advantage of data as a strategic asset.
Looking to the future, Boeing will continue to introduce new computer graphics technology into aerospace.
For example, Boeing has been pushing the transition of augmented reality technology into the production environment as a more-effective way to provide location documentation and maintenance, and assembly instructions for mechanics. This year, through the Boeing HorizonX innovation cell that focused on accelerating potentially transformative aerospace technologies and manufacturing innovations, the company announced its involvement in Upskill, a company that provides software for augmented reality wearables that enhance productivity, quality and safety in manufacturing.
By Tom Koehler, Boeing Writer