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3 Tips to Lightweighting Aircraft

Diagram stating that a 1% mass reduction on medium range, narrow-body aircraft could save over $1 billion/year on fuel.

When a 1% drop in aircraft weight can save billions of dollars, it’s clear that going green (by reducing emissions and fuel consumption) isn’t just a win for the environment, it also helps the bottom line.

Lightweighting aircraft is as critical a part of the future of aviation as hybrid and electric propulsion.

Engineers are challenged to reduce the weight of their component designs while maintaining safety and regulatory standards. The difficulty is that aircraft configurations have been stable for decades and are unlikely to change. Therefore, all the easy weight reduction improvements have been implemented years ago.

To effectively design lightweight aircraft, engineers need to follow three trends:

  1. Embrace advanced materials, like composites
  2. Implement new manufacturing techniques, like additive manufacturing
  3. Extract more value from materials data, with improved data management

1. Advanced Materials for Lightweight Aircraft

A carbon fiber composite material on a roll.

Most modern aircraft are made of over 50% composite materials and are substantially lighter than their predecessors.

Clearly, developing and using new materials is a good way to reduce the weight of aircraft. The challenge is that engineers can have a difficult time predicting the behavior of these complex materials.

If the part can’t be accurately simulated, the potential for late stage design and manufacturing failures increases. These issues are often coupled with large cost and project delays.

Therefore, engineers need simulation tools that can predict the behavior of these complex materials. To do this, they need accurate models that have been validated against experimental data.

2. New Manufacturing Techniques for Lightweighting Structures

Traditional manufacturing techniques can limit an engineer’s freedom to design the optimal part.

As an example, the I-beam is tried, tested and true — but it is often chosen because it’s convenient to produce, not because it’s optimal.

An airplane flying over a city.

Tools like additive manufacturing and topology optimization have opened the door to designs that are stronger and lighter than traditional structural components.

Topology optimization uses physics-driven simulation technologies to find the optimal shape — in a given volume — to meet a set of structural performance requirements. The algorithms that govern this process tend to produce organic-looking parts that would be hard, or impossible, to produce using traditional means. Additive manufacturing, however, can produce many of these structures.

Due to the benefits of these new manufacturing techniques, engineers in the aerospace industry have started to test them for future aircraft designs. These tests will be used to improve predictability, resolve uncertainties and optimize the performance of the printed parts.

3. Materials Data Management Solutions

It isn’t enough to develop new materials or optimize shapes on a part-by-part basis. Aircraft are large complex systems that require a vast quantity of materials data used by different teams at various stages in the design process. This makes it challenging to extract the maximum value out of the available data. This problem doesn’t just affect the design of one particular aircraft, it also can prevent the sharing and reuse of legacy information across future platforms.

Diagram showing the sharing of materials information.

About half of the materials data gathered by an organization is used only once, while engineers can spend about 30 minutes a week looking for data. On top of that, about 20% of materials tests duplicate existing work.

Communication and materials data management across the enterprise is key to addressing this challenge. To save time, money and repetitive work, engineers need a materials database that is easy to navigate, populate and use. The system should also be able to find and recommend materials that could perform a job.

With such a system, engineers will not lose time and resources to hunt for data.

How to Implement Lightweighting Technologies

To reduce costs and emissions, engineers are designing lightweight aircraft. To do this, they need tools to predict the performance of safety-critical parts. These tools will take the form of simulation, composite materials, topology optimization, additive manufacturing and material data management.

Digital transformations will play a major role to ensure these tools — and the engineers who use them — communicate effectively with each other. To learn how, look up: