Behind heavy doors to a spacious room inside Spirit AeroSystems’ engineering building, inventors work on a variety of projects.
Their goal is to create better manufacturing processes, reduce weight, lower costs, improve inspections or otherwise boost Spirit’s capabilities and its ability to serve customers.
Spirit’s technology development efforts are branded “ShadowWorks.” It’s the company’s long-term investment into product and process technology.
The ShadowWorks employee network stretches across the company’s sites in Wichita, Kinston, N.C., Prestwick, Scotland, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Seven of the 48 patents granted to Wichita inventors so far this year are for work at Spirit.
One of Spirit’s heaviest concentrations is a flexible tooling method used for building composite structures.
Spirit dubbed the tooling “Inflexion.”
It will allow the company to build a large complex composite section, such as a fuselage or engine nacelle, and integrate stringers, frames or other components in one continuous piece.
The process will reduce tooling costs, eliminate the need for fasteners and reduce equipment, weight and time.
“The more you can integrate composite features, the lower the cost,” said Bill Smith, Spirit’s director of research and development, as he showed off the process to visitors.
So far, Spirit has applied for nine patents related to the method.
In another large room down the long hall, inventors have created a nondestructive inspection device they call “The Tunneler.”
The small motorized device is designed to tunnel through the inside of a long, narrow, hard-to-reach composite piece, such as a duct or a stringer, to check for defects.
It uses ultrasound waves similar to the sonograms used for pregnant women.
The images are displayed on a small, portable machine.
“We needed to be able to inspect inside a (part) where we couldn’t reach,” said Allison Wright, a Spirit research and development engineer.
At Spirit, innovation helps the company prepare to win new programs and retain customers.
It looks to provide customers the capabilities they need in their products — lower weight, more efficiency or better manufacturing processes, Smith said.
It’s also about cost.
As it competes for work with other suppliers, Spirt must watch its costs, in terms of materials and time.
And it also must continually improve the products’ design and the processes used to make them.
“It’s not about putting in ‘gee whiz’ technology for the sake of technology,” Smith said. “It’s for the requirements and capabilities that an airplane needs. ... It’s about, ‘Can you offer more cost-effective solutions than your competitors?’ ”
Spirit’s efforts in technology involve composite and metallic fuselages, nacelles, pylons and wings. It also has initiatives involving modeling and simulation, chemicals, manufacturing control systems, dimensional technology, product definition, composite materials and robotics, according to the company’s website.
Some are available to outside customers for licensing.
Since Spirit became a stand-alone company in 2006, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded it 48 patents. Fifty-seven more are pending.
Spirit officials say they are selective when it comes to patents.
“We’re looking for patents that really bring us something and that we feel we need to protect to keep people from copying our innovations,” Smith said.
Costs associated with gaining a patent can range from $10,000 to $30,000 plus yearly government maintenance fees.
The process takes about three years.
In addition to patents are trade secrets that Spirit wants to keep from competitors.
“Far more of our value is kept up in the trade secret side — what we know and choose to hold close,” Smith said. “You develop something, and you don’t tell other people about it.”
Most of Spirit’s trade secrets revolve around its processes, Smith said.
Other innovations, which can be viewed by others, need a patent for protection.
“Sometimes, particularly when somebody can see what you’ve done and can copy it, you make a bargain with the government and you say, ‘I will tell you everything about it, but you will protect me for 20 years and you will keep my competitors from it,’ ” Smith said.
Spirit spent $34 million on research and development efforts last year.
About 250 employees work on innovative projects, including 170 who work directly for Spirit’s research and development group.
Most of those projects are the results of discussions with customers and their needs.
“We don’t do science for the sake of science, as fun as that would be,” Smith said.
So, “when a customer says we’re gong to introduce a new product, we have to be ready to support,” said Jarrod Bartlett, Spirit spokesman.
For example, Boeing is developing the 737 Max and the 777X, upgraded versions of those two aircraft. And Airbus is developing the A350.
There are consequences to missing out on a new program.
“If you lose one, you don’t wait until next week for a new airplane program to come in,” Smith said. “The winner takes it all.”
Here’s a look at a few of the innovations that are in development.
In the making of composite structures, such as a fuselage, composite materials traditionally are wound around a rigid tool, or mandrel, to form the shape.
That stiffness, however, makes it difficult to integrate other components into the structure to form one large monolithic part.
That’s because the tool can’t slide out and be removed once the materials harden in the curing process.
The solution is to use flexible tooling.
Enter a class of materials called “shape memory polymer.”
The tooling made from the polymers remain rigid for winding and curing the materials. But additional heat allows the tooling to become flexible, where it can be stretched, reshaped and pulled away.
“It goes from a hard tool to a soft tool during the curing process,” said Carl Fiegenbaum, a research and design engineer working on the project.
That ability lets the composite stringers, frames or other components be integrated into a structure.
“The more I can integrate composite features, the lower the cost,” Smith said. “The idea is to do everything at once.”
The polymer tool can be reused and formed back to that or another shape.
Spirit is testing the process on a 40-inch fuselage barrel.
The company will roll out the technology on “fairly near-term programs in smaller ways,” then build up to larger applications, Smith said.
“There’s a variety of architectures and design philosophies and configurations that we believe would be well suited” for the process, Fiegenbaum said. “It’s not the perfect thing for everything. But there are places where it’s really well suited.”
Integrating composite components into one large structure creates it own set of inspection challenges.
Inspecting a narrow, long integrated composite piece to look for defects is difficult, especially when that piece stretches 30 to 40 feet long and is attached to a wing, tail or another large structure.
“You’ve got to scan the whole thing,” Smith said.
So Wright, and research and development engineers Kendall Koerner and Todd Jaramillo designed and built a device they call the “Tunneler.”
To test it, the three use a motorized device that propels itself through the inside of a long, composite stringer.
The device crawls through the part using ultrasound to capture images that show on a small screen for inspection.
“If there is an issue, we can come back to our scan and see if there’s a defect,” Wright said.
The innovation involves putting the sensors onto the mechanism.
Its small size makes it portable.
“We’re working on making it production worthy,” Jaramillo said.
Two patents are pending.
Repair in a Briefcase
A number of planes flying are built using composites, such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
The composite Airbus A350 is in development. And airplane nacelles, or engine coverings, have been made from composites for many years.
Spirit is also working on how to speed up repairs on those products. It’s working to put together a portable kit that can be used in the field — such as directly on the flight line — without moving the plane elsewhere.
Repairs on composite parts involve cutting around the damaged area and patching, blending and repainting it.
“It’s time consuming,” Smith said. “The broad thing we’re trying to do is automate as many of those steps as we can, condense the equipment into something that can be carried in cases and fly to the problem instead of having to fly the problem to a major repair facility someplace.”
Smith calls it a “repair in a briefcase,” although that’s an exaggeration, he said.
“You’ll never get it down to a briefcase,” he said.
Spirit is inventing a way to scan the edges of the composite materials left after the damaged piece is cut away.
Software will retrieve the data, which will be used to automatically cut material to precisely match up the composite layers for a proper fit.
The method will be used in Spirit’s aftermarket business.
“When you look at all the composite planes being delivered, there’s a demand for the work,” Smith said.