Technology

Paperless Planes


As recently as the 1980s, assembly floors at aircraft manufacturers were littered with hammers -- otherwise known as "persuaders." Factory workers used them to informally customize stubborn parts -- to bend steel and piece together components that didn't quite fit. But thanks to software that allows for more sophisticated engineering -- which reached its latest apex only in the last year -- the production of metal birds has gone from craft to science. And the hammers are now largely the stuff of legend.

Indirectly, the September 11 terrorist attacks helped make that happen. After revenues of U.S. airlines plunged 17% in the third quarter of 2001, the market for planes contracted 30%, says Mike Burkett, senior analyst with tech consultancy AMR Research in Boston. Emboldened airlines began to demand cheaper planes -- and shorter time to market. If regional routes saw a sudden jump in popularity, the airlines wanted to be able to order fuel-efficient planes suitable for shorter runs -- that would be delivered quickly.

Also, the plane makers' other big customer, the military, was getting tougher with manufacturers that ran overbudget or past schedule. Last December, the U.S. Navy canceled a $7 billion missile contract with defense heavyweight Raytheon (RTN) because the average system ended up costing 67% more than it was budgeted for. Ultimately, the Pentagon canceled a Navy missile-defense program altogether.

FINDING AWKWARD FITS. To keep costs in line and speed up design times, the aircraft makers have turned to software that lets them create parts, assemble them, and take the new model for a test drive -- all right on the computer screen. Such programs can shave as much as 50% off design costs, estimates Burkett, by cutting down on the number of prototypes and the amount of testing that's needed, and by helping standardize components and thus increase manufacturing efficiency. Software called Teamcenter from Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in Plano, Tex., can analyze drawings to identify parts that are awkward fits -- and should be redesigned for easier assembly.

Simulation software can cut as much as 40% off design time, says Jean-Francois Calm, a marketing executive with computing giant IBM (IBM) in Paris. A decade ago, plane makers took 10 to 12 years to deliver a new model. Now, it can take as little as four years. Europe's Airbus Industrie needed 15 fewer months to develop its A380, which will carry 555 passengers, than it would have needed 10 years ago. As computers become more powerful and software improves, in a few years the engineering process for planes -- from conception to production -- could fall to 24 months, about as long it takes today to create a prototype of a new car, Calm says.

That's why EDS's sales of software used for designing aircraft, particularly military systems, have enjoyed double-digit growth in the past year, says Tim Nichols, an EDS vice-president. Other types of simulation and computation software should enjoy similar growth as the aviation industry recovers and aircraft makers follow in the footsteps of defense powerhouse Lockheed Martin (LMT), which is creating the world's first "paperless plane" as part of its Jet Strike Fighter contract (JSF).

2,000 TOGETHER. It's called a paperless plane because every step of design and manufacturing for the $400 billion Defense Dept. project, which Lockheed Martin won last October, is to be done electronically. The defense giant uses IBM's CATIA, the world's most popular program for design collaboration, to allow 2,000 engineers working on the JSF design in eight different time zones to see the same drawings simultaneously, says David Rapp, a principal systems engineer at Lockheed Martin. Each designer can tell what others are doing and avoid duplicating efforts.

Collaboration software such as CATIA also allows the primary contractor -- Lockheed Martin, in this case -- to collaborate with its parts vendors, such as engine manufacturers. Considering that an average plane contains more than 100,000 parts from as many as 1,000 subcontractors, that's a big deal. Nowadays, subcontractors make a huge contribution to the planning process, designing 70% of an average plane, estimates Doug Macdonald, a director of product marketing at software maker Parametric Technology (PMTC), in Needham, Mass., which sells design programs such as Pro/ENGINEER.

In fact, collaboration software's use extends far beyond factory walls. For every dollar spent on a plane initially, airlines typically spend $3 to $4 in refurbishing and maintenance over the next 30 years of the aircraft's life, estimates EDS's Nichols. Thus, in October, 2001, United Airlines, which lost two planes in the September 11 terrorist attacks, used CATIA to design a steel bar that's now used to reinforce the cockpit doors on all 600 of its planes, says Larry Slate, one of the airline's two chief engineers.

DIGITAL DUMMIES. United, a subsidiary of UAL Corp. (UAL) and the world's second-largest carrier, also plans to use CATIA for furbishing its planes. Over the past three years, the airline has been ordering Boeing 777s without seats or interiors, since pushing interior design changes through Boeing (BA) takes too long, says Slate. Instead, United plans out everything from the leg room on its planes to seat fabric and then has subcontractors do the work. CATIA, which the airline is still learning to use, should also allow United to make sure that its seats are wide enough by letting digital dummies try them out, Slate adds.

Such features are possible thanks to the three-dimensional graphics and the smart computational software designers use. Just a decade ago, engineers determined the ideal shape of a wing -- that one that offers the least resistance -- by building dozens of models and testing them in wind tunnels that cost up to $4,000 an hour to run. But today, software that runs on supercomputers can simulate airflow and, after six to eight hours of cranking numbers, come up with best design, says Frank Dvorak, president and CEO of privately held Analytical Methods, the world's oldest maker of such computational software.

Even with all the new software that's available, though, predicting real-life stresses can be an inexact science, and real-life testing remains critical. Aircraft manufacturers still test wings, physically applying stress until a wing breaks with a violent snap. "The first plane coming off of assembly is tested to destruction," says Mark Drela, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose computational programs have helped create nearly every plane in the skies today.

TOO MANY PARAMETERS. No perfect formula exists for simulating all the varieties of violent turbulence, Drela continues. And the wind tunnel only offers a rough approximation of the real-life environment. Miscalculation of real-life stresses is often behind accidents in which a plane's tail or an engine come off in mid-flight. Another limitation is that a program that can accurately calculate one parameter, such as the plane's lift, might be far off in calculating another, such as its drag, says Drela. Designers who use the software "have to be skeptical," he says.

Among the biggest difficulties in using the software, however, are the time and expense required for adoption. It took aerospace components supplier Goodrich (GR) 16 months to move 4,200 engineers onto EDS's system. As part of the migration, which was completed only two months ago, Goodrich had to replace 217 separate programs with just a handful.

Such changes, as well as the software itself, can be pricey -- a barrier for smaller companies, which generally like to earn a return on investment within a year. A single-purpose module from EDS costs between $350 and $1,500 per user in initial fees alone. Software limitations notwithstanding, aerospace engineering is soaring to new heights. Which is why in aircraft factories, the "persuader" is by and large a tool of the past. By Kharif in Portland, Ore.


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