The National Institute for Aviation Research is turning to futuristic virtual reality and reverse engineering to help keep aging aircraft flying, re-creating replacement parts for old aircraft where none are available.
Lab associates at NIAR’s new virtual reality and reverse engineering lab, located at the National Center for Aviation Training near Jabara Airport in northeast Wichita, use a process called reverse engineering to create a computerized design from an existing part or piece of equipment.
“It’s very exciting,” said Brian Brown, associate director of NIAR’s Computer-Aided Design, Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD-CAM) Laboratory.
Associates sweep a sophisticated laser scanner over a part or other item, creating thousands of “points” or locations on the part, building a 3-D computerized design. The parts can be simple or complex.
A prototype can be made using a special plastic, which allows customers to perform analysis or check a fit. A machine shop can then use the design to build a metal part.
Using a process called “rapid prototyping,” or stereolithography, a special machine builds the prototype layer by layer. The process can re-create a part’s flexibility or movements. The item can then be put into a “virtual” environment for virtual testing.
The idea for the lab came by requests from aircraft manufacturers, which for the past seven or eight years have asked NIAR for help converting old drawings to 3-D designs and with updating older airplanes.
“A lot of aircraft are getting older, and they don’t have drawings for them anymore or the drawings are outdated,” Brown said.
Older aircraft, such as the B-52 or KC-135, were designed using blueprint drawings. Sometimes, parts were built by hand.
“If you want to go change a part or you want to change an aluminum part into a composite part, you have to go back to the drawing,” said NIAR executive director John Tomblin. “When you go back to the drawing, you have complications of converting a 2-D to a 3-D.”
Reverse engineering an item, such as the door to a business jet, saves an immense amount of time, Tomblin said.
NIAR’s lab became operational within the past three months. Officials plan to offer classes in reverse engineering and virtual reality, said Shawn Ehrstein, director of NIAR’s CAD-CAM laboratory. Few universities teach it.
A variety of uses
On a recent day, lab associate Chris Rempe was scanning one of the crash sled dummies used by NIAR’s crash lab.
Associates took the dummy apart, scanned him and built a 3-D computerized model. The scan marked 9 million locations in the torso to create the model, which can then be used for crash analysis.
For example, it can be analyzed to identify which ribs would break in a certain kind of crash.
Before the technology, testing would show only that a certain crash would break ribs, but fail to identify which ones, Brown said.
The lab doesn’t limit itself to small items.
Reverse engineering can be used to rebuild aircraft wing surfaces, skins, propellers and other large items with high accuracy and detail.
In the virtual reality lab, items can be put into a virtual environment for testing by a live person. who can virtually pick up and move things, Brown said.
The lab has a variety of uses, including the ability to help train aircraft and powerplant mechanics to work on new engines and airplanes.
The lab is helping a client virtually analyze how light affects glare in a cockpit and how to eliminate it by using a virtual cockpit for testing, Ehrstein said.
Technology is new and evolves quickly, Tomblin said. He expects that to continue.
For example, the reverse engineering lab can produce only resin-type parts, he said. One day, “hopefully, we’ll be able to print metallic alloy parts,” Tomblin said.
That could have major biomedical applications in the future.
Today a knee or hip joint used in replacement surgery is selected from a catalog based on which size is closest to the patient’s. In 10 to 15 years, it may be possible to scan a knee or hip joint and reverse engineer a biocompatible replica out of alloy for use in the surgery, Tomblin said.
“You could have a knee joint or hip joint designed for you based on a scan,” he said.