Digital and 3D printing technologies transform UK fighter aircraft development process

4th September 2020

By: Rebecca Campbell

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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UK-based global major aerospace and defence group BAE Systems (BAES) has reported how the latest technologies are being used to drive forward, with unprecedented speed, Britain’s next-generation combat air system programme. Known as Tempest, this project is really benefiting from and making full use of digital twinning and three-dimensional (3D) printing (also known as additive manufacturing) technologies.

Digital twinning involves creating, in a computer system, an exact but virtual duplicate of a real-world entity and of all its systems, subsystems and components, except that the real-world entity does not actually have to exist yet, as is the case with the Tempest. The virtual duplicate can then be subjected to all sorts of simulated tests and evaluations, accelerating the design process while reducing costs.

“The digital twin concept we have developed will be used to design, test and support every single system and structure for Tempest,” highlighted BAES Airframe Technologies head Paul Wilde. “By taking an entirely digital approach to the challenge the UK government has set us, we’re transforming the way we work and adding incredible value to the programme. We can achieve what traditionally would have taken a number of months in a number of days. “As a result, we’re working faster for the future and we’re using the virtual environment to create endless opportunities for our engineers to experiment without boundaries, and with open minds – key to the future innovation of the programme.”

The use of digital twinning has allowed the development of conceptual shapes for the aeroplane, their testing, and the calculation (by high-performance computers) of the aerodynamic performance of different features of these aircraft designs. In addition, test pilots were able to ‘fly’ these ‘aircraft’ using ground-based simulators.

After this digital testing process, 3D printing was used to create scale models of these aircraft designs and these were then tested in BAES’s own wind tunnel facility (at Warton in Lancashire). There, the aerodynamic properties of the models were tested in wind speeds exceeding twice the speed of sound. The data from all these trials and tests is currently being used to define and refine the final design for the Tempest.

“Designing an aircraft has traditionally been an opportunity which comes up once in someone’s career which causes real challenges of transferring skills and knowledge,” pointed out BAES Future Combat Air Systems director Michael Christie. “The technologies now available to us mean that we can reduce the design cycle which in itself is good for the affordability of a programme but we can also perform more cycles very quickly until we get it right. The UK government has set us a significant challenge, but the programme has some of the boldest and brightest minds on board, who are breaking milestones at an accelerated pace and developing technologies and techniques that will be game changing for the UK defence industry and beyond.”

The Tempest aircraft is scheduled to enter service in 2035. The other major industrial partners in the Tempest programme are Leonardo UK (part of the Italian Leonardo group), pan-European missile group MBDA, and Rolls-Royce. The overall programme involves research in more than 60 different technology areas. These range from the actual shape of the aircraft to sophisticated sensor systems. The research being undertaken by all these companies will be used to develop an ‘Outline Business Case’ for the British government regarding the future and further development of the Tempest programme. The consideration and approval of this Outline Business Case is the next key ‘decision point’ for government. Approval would start the next phase of the programme.

Digital technology would also be used in the manufacture and assembly of the Tempest aircraft. BAES was already demonstrating this in its multimillion-pound ‘Factory of the Future’, at its Warton complex. The group has described this new facility as “first-of-its-kind 4.0 factory . . . applying game changing digital technologies”. ‘Cobotics’ (workers and robots working together cooperatively) and flexible robotics have eliminated the requirement for long-lead, fixed and heavy tooling, and allow for the rapid switching from the manufacture of one part or component to another. Off-the-shelf robotic technology and intelligent machines have been adopted from the automotive industry and adapted to deliver the precise tolerances needed in the manufacture of military aircraft.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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