Carlos Robles
Vice President of the Central Region
Mexican Aerospace Industry Federation
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Expert Contributor

How is New Tech Being Incorporated in the Aerospace Industry?

By Carlos Robles | Mon, 11/23/2020 - 13:53

Airplanes are complex to design and manufacture. The structural components are greatly overdesigned to withstand the most severe stress conditions. Systems are redundant and if something fails, there is always at least a second option. Then, everything needs to be tested and certified continuously to enter into service and to remain flying for years. I have seen prototypes broken apart by stress forces as part of the testing phase amid all of the designing, manufacturing, testing and certifications. 

According to Fortune, Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, according to the National Safety Council. The odds of dying in air and space transport incidents, which include private flights and air taxis, are 1 in 9,821. In all those processes, technology has always played a big role in the evolution of safety in the air. One very typical example of that today is the air filtering systems of airplanes. IATA recently made public research that concludes that HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters basically protect passengers from more than 99.9 percent of particles, including microscopic viruses and bacteria, such as COVID 19.

Computer-aided design and manufacturing have also introduced disruption in the way parts are designed and assembled and it is now possible to reproduce all kinds of conditions for a part, such as material, geometry, type of joint, stress in specific areas and almost anything else you can imagine. Working in manufacturing, I saw parts assembled so tightly they would remain joined without fasteners. Tolerances and gaps have reduced to almost 5 percent of what they were 30 years ago and materials are 30 percent lighter but more resistant, according to some design engineers I have had the opportunity to interact with. The other benefit of the use of computers at the time of designing an aircraft is that it does not matter where the engineers are working. I have been involved in projects where some portions of the structural design were done in India, Canada and the United States, while all the harness design, specification and routing were done in Mexico. Projects were uploaded into a common file and everybody could interact in real time and update their parts. This allowed us to lower design costs, improve time to market and maximize the use of skills of specialized labor.

The use of computer simulation plays a huge role in the manufacturing of an aircraft, but it is usually minimized because it is not common to talk about it. But what would happen if a hole for a rivet was not drilled to be a perfect circle, or was too big? What if a part was slightly bent but within tolerance, or if the sealant was left too long outside the freezer? It happens and as with any task performed by a human in manufacturing, mistakes and imprecisions inevitably happen at every step of the manufacturing cycle. Thanks to computer power, in most cases, we can simulate the condition and analyze its behavior while the aircraft is in service. It also helps to provide a plan to rework the affected part, conveying to engineers which size of oversized rivet should be installed or even, if needed, to install a bushing to then install a fastener. From this, we will know how the rework will perform in service and if a special maintenance requirement should be incorporated into the manual of that particular aircraft. 

So far, I have presented a couple of “old” technologies but the newest technologies are already present in the industry. Virtual reality environments, for example, are being used to train people, starting with pilots in simulators that “feel” more real than virtual. VR is also useful in design phases to take a good look at how some components and systems will perform when assembled and flying. 

Imagine you are a design engineer of aircraft engines and you are able to be inside the engine to see how the part you are designing will perform in basically any type of condition. I am not a design engineer myself, but I have been there, in an augmented reality room that put me inside the engine where I could see the interactions of all the parts as if I were a mosquito standing there while the engine was functioning. The experience is amazing by itself, but the benefits for design engineers are very relevant.

Did you know that every time you fly on an Airbus A320 there are five computers flying with you? You might think that’s not a lot but the amount of data those computers handle in order to provide information translated into the pilot’s language for them to make decisions is huge. All the computer data needed so we as passengers can watch a movie or adjust the temperature or light also requires big processing power. Yet, we rarely think about how all that information, plus data from the behavior of components while in flight, is being compiled and processed at all times. From there, maintenance needs and cycles can be adjusted, potential safety issues can be addressed, information for future designs can be obtained and sooner than later, we will be incorporating machine learning that combined with artificial intelligence, I dare to say, will lead us to fly without pilots, or at least to rely less on pilots to start with. 

We are living in an era of exponential technological advance. According to Moore’s Law, number of transistors you can pack onto the same sliver of silicon doubles every two years, spurring the pace of evolution for computing power growth. This phenomenon is being used in many sectors and the aerospace industry is no different. One thing we need to understand is that one of the biggest budgets for R&D is in the defense sector and it works as the incubator and testing field for products, systems and technologies that are later incorporated into commercial and civil aviation. The cycles from design to use are getting shorter, but we need to make sure we do the proper testing and certification compliance to make sure aviation remains as safe or safer than ever before. There are many lessons we need to learn as an industry from the Boeing 737 MAX issues. Technology probed and used in the right way brings great benefits but in the contrary case, the consequences can cost a company a lot of money in lawsuits and compensation, trust and reputation. Above all, however, the most important goal is to save human lives. 

Photo by:   Carlos Robles