December 2004/January 2005
Volume 03, Issue 8
breaking the mold
Boeing engineers and technologists are constantly developing better ways to design and make products.
STORY BY WILLIAM COLE | PHOTOS BY BOB FERGUSON
Imagine a world of virtual reality in which a personal digitized "instructor" walks a mechanic through the step-by-step building of an airplane. Consider new and exotic aerospace vehicles made of super-strong alloys and composite materials reinforced with microscopic nanofibers. Picture materials that can change shape to take advantage of changing conditions or that can monitor and "heal" themselves with embedded systems. Visualize a laser machine that can be taken to the battle theater to instantly build or "grow" intricate parts for warfighting machines from a special powder. Imagine machined parts for advanced weapons systems that are so small that several can fit on a penny.
Those are just a few of the amazing advanced manufacturing technologies that are transforming the way Boeing makes its products. Boeing Phantom Works engineers and technologists in Puget Sound, St. Louis, Southern California, Philadelphia, Mesa, Ariz., Wichita, Kan., and elsewhere are constantly looking for ways to improve engineering and production cycle time, performance, quality and affordability.
"Advanced manufacturing technologies are playing a huge part in determining Boeing's global future," said Julie-Ellen Acosta, vice president of Structural Technologies, Prototyping, and Quality for Boeing Phantom Works. "Our vision is to lead the revolution to a lean, quality-focused global enterprise. We do that by transitioning innovative structural and manufacturing solutions into Boeing products and processes."
To be competitive, she said, Boeing has to be able to make its products faster, better and more affordably than anybody else, and with fewer parts. "We must also improve the performance, or total life cycle, or our products once they are in the field. That's the key to winning new business," she added.
Manufacturing process teams have pioneered the use of high-speed machining, friction stir joining, automated fiber placement and stitched resin film infusion, for example. As a result, they are producing large, one-piece metallic and composite structures that are stronger and lighter than multipiece structures, and much faster and cheaper to produce.
Such structures went into producing the new forward fuselage for the F/A-18E/F. The redesigned fuselage has 40 percent fewer parts, 51 percent fewer fasteners and takes 31 percent less time to build-all leading to lower costs for Boeing, the U.S. Navy and taxpayers. Moreover, the new fuselage is designed to last three times longer than required to ensure low lifecycle cost and high operational readiness.
Vehicle weight-the eternal nemesis for designers-is being cut literally by advances in high-speed machining. Modern equipment is allowing mechanics to machine to minute tolerances that can shave off as much as 30 percent of a structure's weight on the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System and panels for the Boeing 702 commercial satellite.
Manufacturing innovations are being repeated across the company, and engineers are getting faster and better at it. With network-centric advancements that allow teams to communicate via common communications and computer software systems, Phantom Works is moving closer to its "design-anywhere, build-anywhere" ideal.
Advanced manufacturing technologies, long pushed out of the limelight by the more glamorous X-vehicles and other advanced systems, are gaining more attention because people realize how critical they are to Boeing's bottom line, said Bart Moenster, director of Advanced Manufacturing R&D in St. Louis.
"Advanced systems would not be possible without the advanced prototyping, structures and materials that we develop," Moenster said. "And in the future, the economical building of airplanes and systems made largely of composites will depend almost entirely on manufacturing technologies. Our job is to take good ideas and theories and make them work in our design centers and on the shop floor around the enterprise."
Commercial Airplanes engineers are utilizing advanced manufacturing technology to develop the build processes for the 7E7 and help implement Lean principles for the existing commercial airplane models.
"We are challenging the composite material state of the art on the 7E7," said Tom Tobey, director of BCA's Material & Process Technology and leader of the regional Phantom Works manufacturing technology efforts in Puget Sound. "Reaching our cost goals for this program will depend on new fabrication techniques. Our success will depend on how well we can integrate our capability with our supplier-partners."
Moenster recently told an audience of suppliers that as Boeing moves away from fabrication as a core competency, the vendors are becoming increasingly important partners.
Technology collaboration is on the rise and the transition of technologies within Boeing is big business. In 2003, for example, Phantom Works transitioned programs and technologies to the business units that were worth more than $14 billion-$5.3 billion of which were for design and manufacturing technologies that both enhanced revenues and reduced cost. Among them were laser additive C-17 pylon panels, high-performance aluminum and titanium machining. Demonstrating that both commercial and military businesses can reap the benefits of manufacturing technologies, the team this year produced a unitized nacelle structure for the 777 and provided lean and efficient support for the 7E7 and a hybrid duct system for the 717.
To optimize product affordability and performance, the advanced manufacturing team is concentrating on
. Reduced part count. Since the 1930s, planes have been made out of bent aluminum and rivets. By manufacturing large, unitized parts through the use of composites, high-speed machining, super-plastic forming or titanium casting, thousands of smaller parts can be eliminated. By reducing the part count on the E/F model of the F/A-18 by 45 percent, for example, Boeing has reduced its labor hours significantly.
. Reduced cycle time. Advanced prototyping methods are reducing and, in some cases, eliminating costly, hard-to-manage tooling. Solid modeling advances including 3-D imagery have eliminated time-consuming drafting or engineering drawings. "'Reverse engineering" coupled with laser-assisted manufacturing allows the speedy manufacture of complex parts, essentially creating manufacturing-on-demand. Automated drilling and improved drilling ergonomics in the workplace are reducing rework.
. Improved performance. New materials and structures are lighter and stronger, which translates into improved performance. As new technologies are added to platforms and systems, the lifecycle of the product is expanded. Moreover, advanced prototyping could help to keep legacy products such as the B-52 and the Harrier II AV-8B Plus in active service longer.
The future lies in taking technologies to the next level.
"One day, we'll be building parts on demand in space, on aircraft carriers and at other points of use," said Jeff DeGrange, manager of Phantom Works' Direct Manufacturing Prototype Processes. He's referring to laser-forming technologies being used to transform powder materials into intricate flight hardware, such as F/A-18E/F ducts, in a process called selective laser sintering. Laser-forming technologies now are being used to produce parts from titanium, among other materials. All of them involve the use of direct digital manufacturing that can build parts that are not touched by a human hand until they are ready for testing and use.
DeGrange's vision for the technology is to establish a network-centric manufacturing environment using digital computer-assisted design data to "grow" production parts or make accelerated engineering changes right where the vehicle is located in the field or maintenance depot. This network-centric manufacturing approach would streamline the product design and build operations, provide world-class product support and eliminate the need for warehouse tools and spare parts.
"We could do something in a matter of days that normally might take up to two years," DeGrange said.
SHARING NEW TOOLS
Virtual and augmented reality tools have played a role in the design of aerospace products for some time. "Now we'd like to bring them to the factory floor," said Drew Mallow, senior manager of Advanced Manufacturing Research and Development. "We want to be able to show mechanics how to build an airplane, not just through work instructions, but by giving them a virtual reality tour in which they are shown exactly how parts fit together. In the past, we have had to rely on tribal knowledge or the written word for guidance. In the future, we'll have our own personal virtual instructors."
Sophisticated lightweight composites are increasingly being used on commercial as well as military aircraft, and will make the 7E7 Dreamliner one of the most affordable commercial jetliners of the future. The composites of the future will be even more amazing. New materials, engineered at the microscopic level with nanofibers, will be used to produce fire retardant structures and super-strong alloys and composites. What's more, new composite materials can be bonded at low temperatures. That means that bulky and expensive autoclaves or pressurized ovens needed to bond composites might one day be a thing of the past.
"We're moving ever closer to dispensing with expensive and costly tooling altogether," said Mallow, noting that sometimes "the tooling we use to hold parts and structures in place are more expensive than the product we're building."
The materials are becoming ever more multifunctional. Engineers are working on composites skins that have health-monitoring systems and antennas embedded. "We're working on 'morphing' skins and structures that can change shape during flight to take advantage of altitude and other conditions," said Mallow, something that Boeing is exploring with its wing-twisting Active Aeroelastic Wing project for NASA.
Another initiative involves the engineering of tiny parts for advanced weapon systems that would work more efficiently and save weight. "Micromachining will enable the fabrication of incredibly small and precise machined parts, which will allow high-tolerance parts to be produced for ultra-small applications in aircraft and satellites." said Ed Gerding, senior manager of Metallic Processes Development. "Typical micromachining involves machining of features and cutters that are on the order of a few thousandths of an inch. Accordingly, the tolerances involved are in the micron, or millionths of an inch, range."
Concluded Moenster: "There's no limit to where we can go. Nanotechnology could be producing composites that are even lighter and stronger than today's materials. Someday, we may be able to make aluminum that is as good as or better than titanium. Super high-speed machining could offer improvements beyond our wildest dreams.
"Our company's motto Forever New Frontiers says it all about manufacturing technology. This is an exciting time for us and for Boeing."
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