Boeing Frontiers
February 2003
Volume 01, Issue 09
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Tech Talk

REsolutions connects past to future


REsolutionsAs the Starship Enterprise glides through the blackness of space, one of the crew notices an indistinguishable object through one of the starboard windows. Is this a Klingon Bird of Prey attack ship, or a meteorite?

Quickly, the Enterprise projects a beam of light that scans the object and creates a "point cloud," a three-dimensional cluster of positions in space. The points are fed through a sensor to give the object its form—a 3-D electronic image projected onto a computer screen. Now visible, the object turns out to be a harmless piece of space junk.

If such a futuristic capability appears to be just TV science fiction, one only has to track down Ric Baldini, a Phantom Works prototype processes engineer, to find that the technique is real and prospering at Boeing.

Baldini explains that the Starship Enterprise crew was essentially using "reverse engineering" techniques— working backward from a final product to its conception—to create a 3-D image of an object in the absence of its known geometry.

Engineers used a variation on the Enterprise technology—which Baldini first committed to a paper tablecloth in a Chicago Italian restaurant during a burst of creative energy—to reproduce the nacelle of a recently restored Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Engineers are using the system also to accurately replicate complicated C-17 transport cargo-bay parts, define structural sections of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, identify mismatches in T-38 avionics doors, and construct a complete make-over for classic Corvette sports cars. They are even considering the technology for construction of precision prosthetics for disabled children and amputees.

Some study results show the technology provides superior product definition for existing hardware and savings of up to 52 percent in modeling efforts. So effective is the work Baldini's team pioneered that it has evolved into a Chairman's Innovation Initiative project that has successfully proceeded through the third phase and into a Boeing Ventures standalone business. Called REsolutions, the company now is operating as a "spin-in" operation within the Phantom Works Advanced Support Concepts organization, where Boeing is "incubating" it for a potential future spinoff as an independent new company.

Three-dimensional modeling technologies, pioneered on such Boeing programs as the 777 commercial airliner and the X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, allow design engineers to use the computer image to reproduce the scanned object directly. By defining the numerically controlled cutter paths for high-speed machining, the image allows the production of tools and some parts from conventional materials.

"These days, the 3-D image is the ticket to a new part that is as accurate as it can be, no matter how big, small or complex its shape," Baldini says. "We can even measure an entire aircraft, using a kind of 'quilting' process that pieces together the image. It has all but replaced the blueprints of old that involved a costly, labor-intensive process to reach the final product."

Already Boeing programs ranging from the X-45 to the X-37 orbital technology demonstrator, the 767 Tanker, the F-15K and the F/A-18 have expressed an interest in REsolutions solutions. Now, REsolutions has entered the biomedical field by providing the geometry to make various orthotic devices to help disabled children.

"I am passionate about this," Baldini says. "This is the most satisfying work I have ever done."

How it works

REsolutions' brand of reverse engineering creates geometric computer-aided design models for objects when no such model exists. Combining precise coordinate data captured from the surface of the actual object with whatever engineering data might already exist (blueprints, sketches); engineers create a computer-aided design model tailored to the customer's application.

"Take anything, a cup on a table, for example," said Ric Baldini, a Phantom Works prototype processes engineer. "If we want to reproduce that cup exactly, we need to get a 'point cloud' that precisely spells out its dimensions so that we can create an electronic 3-D image."

Engineers can do that in a number of ways—through laser interferometry; projected white light grid patterns; physical contact (touch-probe machines that physically measure the item); or an integration of all three processes.

The lasers use a "time-of-flight" process to compute traveling distance and provide a modeling point for the object. They typically are better suited for large objects at long distances. The white light grid scans the surface of smaller products, and the information is processed to create a 3-D image in the same way your brain processes simultaneous signals from your eyes. Touch-probe instruments measure coordinates physically, and technicians use the measurements primarily to provide dimensions for individual parts.

Once armed with coordinate data, any one of several software packages enables the creation of the computer-aided design model. The model can reflect the data directly, and other engineering definitions, such as blueprints, can augment it with specific detail (thicknesses, hole sizes, datum planes).



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