Boeing Frontiers
October 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 06 
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Tech Talk

'CSI' comes to Boeing

Laser-powered technology, similar to that used at crime scenes, could eliminate tooling on the production floor


Homicide sleuths like those depicted on CBS television's hit drama "CSI" use it to measure the trajectories and distances of shots fired at crime scenes. Accident investigators use it to determine the paths and collision points of vehicles.

Now Boeing is demonstrating a similar, more advanced global positioning system 3D laser technology to measure aerospace parts precisely and determine exactly where they fit into an airplane or launch vehicle assembly. Workers also can use it to align large structures, such as fuselages, to make them "aerodynamically pure" and perfectly pinpoint locations for tiny subassembly parts.

Called Constellation 3Di, the system includes a new kind of laser-powered "magic wand" that could soon help build everything from 747s to F/A-18 Super Hornets to Delta space launch vehicles — with minimal tooling. When a technician points the wand at a part, it picks up laser signals from four infrared transmitters, and 3Di displays measurement data on a handheld device or a desktop computer monitor. Manufacturing engineers and assemblers use the information to pinpoint the location on an assembly where they are to install the part, a task that traditionally requires them to use tooling. Tooling is hardware that holds parts and structures together during assembly and typically is expensive to put in place and to modify if design changes occur. Boeing accordingly has been developing and implementing various design and manufacturing techniques, including laser tracking systems, to eliminate as much tooling as possible.

"The big advantage of the Constellation 3Di unit is its cost," explains John Belk, a physicist with Phantom Works' Technology Planning and Acquisition group, who is managing the Arc Second technology transition for Boeing. "Like existing laser measuring systems, the new unit is accurate to within 3.5 thousandths of an inch under controlled conditions, but it costs about two-thirds less."

A small startup company called Arc Second, in Dulles, Va., is manufacturing the sophisticated Global Positioning System coordinate measuring system. Boeing Phantom Works gained insight into Arc Second's technology through its investment in SpaceVest, a venture capital fund that helps startup companies. Phantom Works invests in a wide range of such funds as part of its strategy to find the best technologies and talent around the world to help maintain Boeing's competitive edge.

"This is a great example of how Phantom Works is seeking out new technologies that help Boeing as a whole to make more affordable products more efficiently," Belk said. "The main objective of this system is to help us dispense with tooling that is expensive, takes up space, and takes time to install and disassemble."

James Cobb, a mechanical engineer for Boeing Commercial Airplanes Manufacturing Research and Development, demonstrated the system at a series of production floor events across the company.

"We have been very pleased with the results so far," Cobb said. "The system has created tremendous interest in St. Louis, Wichita and Puget Sound, where we have done the demonstrations so far. This system is the first proven indoor Global Positioning System system with the accuracy, reliability, and utility to support production line metrology (measurement systems). It essentially works in the same way as the Global Positioning System systems mountaineers and pilots use, except that we use it indoors to take precise measurements."

Rich Steckel, a quality engineer for Phantom Works who hosted the demonstration in St. Louis recently, said workers can use the system to automate routine tooling inspection, control and align the assembly of large subassemblies, reverse engineer key parts and aircraft components, and monitor real-time deformations during construction and assembly.

"We are also finding many opportunities here at Boeing to use the standard version of the system for such things as the better installation of clips that hold insulation blankets in commercial aircraft, and the location of clips and brackets," he said. "That's the very same system used in crime and accident investigations."

Automotive, rail and shipbuilding industries also are using the system to measure and inspect large equipment, jigs and machines.

the Constellation 3Di systemHow the system works

In the Constellation 3Di system, technicians use a handheld wand that is hardwired to a wearable computer to detect infrared light signals from transmitters located on different parts of the assembly area. Each transmitter sends out different kinds of signals and fan-shaped and strobe flashes, as it rotates on a stand. As the technician move the wand from one location to the other, it uses the different arrival times of all the different transmitter signals to calculate the spatial coordinates of its tip. Two transmitters provide sufficient accuracy for some aerospace assembly tasks, such as attaching clips, but achieving accuracies typical of most assembly tasks will require four transmitters. An unlimited number of workers with receiver wands can work independently of each other as long as two or more transmitters are in view.





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