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The Boeing Company today announced that GKN Aerospace Services will join the technology development team for the Sonic Cruiser.
The Sonic Cruiser — a new aircraft concept unveiled by Boeing — has a dramatic new configuration and is designed to fly up to Mach 0.98 — just under the speed of sound. Such an aircraft would shorten travel times with fuel consumption per passenger comparable to today’s best performing wide-body twinjets. GKN is the first UK-based company to join the Sonic Cruiser program. GKN’s initiative on the Sonic Cruiser is being led by its structures operation based in St. Louis. Kevin Smith, GKN Managing Director, Aerospace, said, “”When we acquired the St Louis operation from Boeing in early 2001 a key objective, in addition to leveraging our expertise in military aircraft, was to expand our work on commercial aircraft.””
“”Our agreement with Boeing to join the Sonic Cruiser development team shows that we are achieving our ambitions. It also shows how research often initiated for military aircraft can lead to exciting, cost-effective opportunities for commercial aircraft,”” Smith said.
Jeff Luckey, Boeing’s Director of Supplier Management for the Sonic Cruiser program, said, “”GKN is a truly global leader in technologies such as Resin Transfer Molding processing and propulsion structures. They have demonstrated an ability to use a global team to provide industry solutions and will be a valued member of our team.””
Since acquiring the St. Louis plant from Boeing, GKN has invested $40 million to expand its capabilities, including what is believed to be the largest Resin Transfer Molding facility in the US. Resin Transfer Molding uses an advanced system for combining carbon fiber fabric with epoxy and other resins. It results in greater quality, increased production rates and an ability to manufacture more complex close-tolerance composite parts than had previously been possible.
Also on the Sonic Cruiser development team are Alenia Aeronautica, Fuji Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Japan Aircraft Development Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Vought Aircraft Industries and the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Wichita Division.
GKN’s involvement will focus on advanced composite materials, metallic components, and propulsion structures.
At the Farnborough Air Show today, Walt Gillette, vice president and program manager for the Boeing Sonic Cruiser, outlined the progress being made on five technology fronts as Boeing (NYSE: BA) continues to focus on this major product-development effort.
“”We are making very good progress on the fundamentals required to create the Sonic Cruiser,”” Gillette said. “”These fundamentals involve the technology needed for the airplane, the processes needed to create the airplane, and the basic configuration exploration activities necessary to reveal the very best shape for the airplane.””
The Sonic Cruiser airplane concept was unveiled in March last year. The airplane would have a dramatic new configuration and would be designed to fly as fast as Mach 0.98, shortening travel times with fuel efficiency per passenger comparable to today’s best performing widebody twinjets. As part of the normal product development process Boeing also has developed two other alternative applications of the technology being used on the Sonic Cruiser and is asking for airline input.
Gillette characterized the current phase of development as a “”learning”” phase and said that progress is measured by how fast the team is learning about the technologies, tools and processes that will allow it to create an all-new class of flying machines.
Advancements in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), the computer coding used to evaluate and develop the aerodynamic flows of structure, have been instrumental in allowing rapid learning on the Sonic Cruiser program. Gillette noted that a second round of wind tunnel tests continues to verify that the CFD coding is predicting performance to within 1 percent.
“”That means we can do a lot of learning before we ever get to the wind tunnel,”” he said. “”We’ve looked at more than 25 wing planforms, 50 nacelle shapes and 60 fuselage designs in the past 16 months. We could never have done that on earlier programs.””
The discussion concerning the primary materials for the Sonic Cruiser continues, according to Gillette. The current design assumes that the new airplane will be about 60 percent composite material. Boeing has built a test fuselage section to examine both the build process and the material properties of one of the proposed composite materials. The 20-foot long section is being used to test installation techniques, durability and repairability.
“”Competition is a wonderful thing,”” Gillette said. “”As soon as we started talking about this being a mostly composite airplane we began to get very interesting proposals from the aluminum manufacturers regarding new alloys with better properties and economics. We are looking at those proposals and evaluating what will be best for the airplane. At this phase of development, we aren’t ready to make a decision about materials and that lets us keep an open mind and evaluate all the possibilities to find the best answer.””
Manufacturing experts are already at work on the Sonic Cruiser program, helping engineers understand how their very early choices can improve the way the airplane is eventually built. Boeing has demonstrated considerable progress in applying new manufacturing techniques and concepts to dramatically improve the way its current models are built. Gillette said such progress will be a foundation for ensuring the efficiency of the Sonic Cruiser build process.
One example offered was the application of the Lean Manufacturing technique of a moving line. “”Boeing has been able to reduce production time by half on one of its production lines through the introduction of the moving line,”” Gillette said. “”The improvements are continuing. Even if we assume a very conservative rate for the continuation of improvements, we can expect that by the time we start building our airplane we will have significantly improved the efficiency of our build process.””
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