Eighteen months after the high-profile collapse of Lehman Brothers, the repercussions of the credit crisis are still being felt around the world. In spite of some encouraging revitalisation in emerging markets, the global aerospace sector faces two key challenges: Western governments with tight control of military purse strings and a more cautious mood in the corporate market. This ‘new austerity’ environment has encouraged a renewed focus on costs, which is boosting demand for 3D.

According to Sylvain Laurent, VP EMEA for Dassault Systemes, technology is one tool that will allow companies to "weather the storm" and emerge from the downturn fitter than before. The French company has developed a cluster of product lifecycle management (PLM) software, including the market-leading CATIA, which is used to manage products from inception through the development lifecycle. Laurent believes that getting rid of waste without affecting the value of products delivered to the customer is essential, and evidence from economists watching large, listed companies in markets such as the US, shows that applied technology has already brought about a striking improvement in productivity.    

In practical terms, Laurent is enthusiastic about the role designing products in 3D can have in helping to address complex technical and manufacturing problems and in bringing products to market. We live in a three-dimensional world, and digital 3D design allows companies a quicker, cheaper and more accurate way to mimic real-life situations than building scale models. It also enables designers to visualise, understand and cost the implications of making changes to their products faster than ever before. With effective use of resources at the top of the agenda, this approach makes sense.

Of course, the challenges that manufacturers face are also more acute than ever. Globalisation is well established and different parts of a manufacturing process can take place all over the world. According to Laurent: "Designing products in 3D can eliminate translation issues and costs when outsourcing manufacturing to a contractor that speaks a different language. And creating a company platform with one source of data and utilising common processes and tools helps to ensure that waste and duplication is minimised and that the re-use of intellectual capital is maximised."

“3D design allows companies a quicker, cheaper and more accurate way to mimic real-life situations than building scale models.”

Being productive with 3D

Dassault Systemes’ software products, which include tools for product design, virtual testing and 3D data collaboration, have been used on major development projects, including the development of the Airbus 380. This 525-seater aircraft took many years to develop, with collaboration between sites in France, Germany, the UK and Spain. The aircraft is notable for its size – more than 70m in length – and its relative efficiency. The use of lighter composites in the fuselage contributes to Airbus’s claim that the aircraft costs 15% less to operate than any of its rivals.

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Developing such a large aircraft involved some practical challenges, such as how to carry out the wing assembly and then lift the assembled sections most effectively. According to Geoff Tantum, simulation group leader at Airbus’s UK facility at Broughton, productivity gains brought by using Dassault software are clear. "By allowing us to focus on improvements and digitally test and examine the outcomes, we are able to run our operations more predictably, mitigate risks and improve accuracy," he says.

Airbus reported winning $11.5bn worth of orders for the A380 at the Berlin Air Show in June 2010. This enable the company to announce that the recessionary tide had turned, and that it could see its own ‘green shoots’ of recovery. This apparently positive future masks the fact that the aircraft’s development overran by a substantial margin. It suffered from poor co-ordination between sites, a scenario which now appears as a classic case study for students in business schools. 

The A380 was built in sections, with engineers in Germany working on plans for a section of its rear fuselage. The fuselage itself was being assembled in Toulouse, France. When it came to assembly, French engineers found that some pre-configured parts, including clusters of power cables, would not fit into the space allocated in the body of the aircraft. The cables had to be separated, and then fed by hand into the body of the plane. With around 300 miles of cable and more than 40,000 connectors, this was clearly a significant and costly error.

“3D is also important in ensuring accuracy when cutting and moulding today’s technologically advanced materials.”

Later, it became apparent that the problem had arisen as the two teams were using different versions of the same software. The German site had used Version 4 of Dassault Systemes CATIA CAD software, while the Toulouse site was using Version 5. The solution was to update and harmonise the 3D tools and database, which took time. 

A different cut

As well as helping to co-ordinate complex data, working in 3D is also important in ensuring accuracy when cutting and moulding today’s technologically advanced materials. Although aluminium is still the traditional material used in aircraft construction, it is gradually being replaced by engineered composites in many areas. On average, composites account for around 30% of any aircraft made by Airbus. This increases to more than 50% for Boeing’s Dreamliner. These materials, which are typically carbon thermoplastics or laminates made from aluminium mesh and glass fibre, are light and strong. They have a high strength-to-weight ratio, and are also resistant to corrosion and fatigue. The integration of fibres into the material itself means that they do not develop cracks in the same way as metals. 

These characteristics mean that it is not possible to use conventional cutting tools, due to the soft nature of the material and its layered structure. According to Patrick Toensmeier of Moldmaking Technology magazine, conventional cutters may not shear fibres cleanly, creating rough surfaces that can allow the layers of composite to start to separate. 3D cutting tools with polycrystalline diamond (PCD) tips will give a better result.  

Modelling the safety implications of using technological-advanced materials is also a complex business. Debate about the safety of new composites has gripped the aero industry, and 3D tools have an important role to play in identifying critical load-bearing areas, identifying design stress points and ensuring robust design.