August 25, 2023, ©. Leeham News: We described the different phases of an airliner development program last week.
We will look at the Preliminary design phase this week, what work is done, the tools used, and how it can be made more efficient.
We said last week that a new airliner project starts with the Conceptual design phase. It would be more correct to say that the formal aircraft project starts when a project transitions from a Conceptual design phase into a Preliminary design phase.
As discussed, the Conceptual phase is continuous at airliner OEMs, exploring new technologies and configurations against market opportunities defined by the Marketing and Sales departments.
The actual aircraft program starts when Conceptual design morphs into Preliminary design. The Company management has decided there is a market need that has a size that motivates the high workhour content and thus the cost of developing a clean sheet new airliner.
As before, let’s assume the project is about developing the next-generation airliner for the heart of the market segment. We want the development program to cut the typical seven to eight years to EIS (Entry Into Service). But we also understand that the work result shall develop a new aircraft family that will have an operational life of at least 50 years.
The design work has to take the 50 years of operational life into account; thus, designing with flexibility for changes and upgrades to the airplane for capacity, engines, and aerodynamics is important. Shall we count on one wing size for all variants and all years, or shall there be, e.g., two wing areas and/or spans? Should the supplier teaming and production follow previous practices, or should there be changes? These are studies in Preliminary design that have to “get it right.”
In Preliminary design, you take the most promising concepts and ideas from Conceptual design and detail them further. To do it, a number of tools are used. The initial tool is similar to our Aircraft Performance and Cost model, APCM. It has a geometry section that feeds the Aerodynamic drag section, the Weight estimation section, the Cabin overall configuration part, and the Production cost part. The geometry section can use the modern generation of 3D design suites, like Dassault 3DEXPERIENCE, to capture the geometry in digital 3D solids format from stage one.
The output feeds overall dimensions, wetted areas, etc., into a first principles calculus model. It will generate preliminary performance, weight, and cost data. The results will later be further refined with detailed tools for aerodynamics like CFD (Computer Fluid Dynamics) and for the structure, FEM (Finite Element Model) structural analysis to get a better estimate of drag values, skin geometry, and weight. These are either part of the overall 3D design suite or can work seamlessly with the suite. All data from the Preliminary design tools are stored in a central data repository, often the data management part of the 3D design suite.
For engines, the OEM will ask for data from engine OEMs for engine candidates but most likely also use engine modeling tools like GasTurb to get thrust, fuel consumption, weight, and size estimates for engine iterations they do without going the engine OEM loop.
The process is iterative, comparing how, for instance, two candidate designs downselected from the Conceptual phase will pan out. At some stage, one design will be chosen and refined further.
Now, the different parts of the aircraft are analyzed deeper. The overall shape and aerodynamics are studied in more detailed CFD runs. Models of the aircraft are made to run in wind tunnels as low-speed aerodynamics are difficult to predict accurately with CFD.
The weight estimation and production cost analysis are important as any weight creep will affect promised performance to launch customers, and the prices of the aircraft are set after production cost analysis has projected the cost learning curve for the aircraft.
When program and company management are satisfied that the aircraft’s aero and weight data is solid, the engine OEM’s data is reliable, and production cost analysis has matured, the aircraft can be formally launched.
It means the Sales teams get the authority to give binding offers to customers. Typically, one large customer is presented as the launch customer when the formal launch is publically announced, together with preliminary data for the aircraft.
All data for the aircraft are now detailed to the level where it can give solid input for the detailed design of the aircraft. When a sufficiently stable detailed level is reached, the part of the aircraft design is frozen so that detailed design doesn’t have to chase overall design changes, which means the parts go through constant redesign.
The Preliminary design phase is probably the part of the program that is hardest to make big gains regarding work hours and calendar time used for the phase. There is a limited amount of people involved, and the tools define the aircraft on an overall level, like:
One area that will have an important efficiency effect downstream in the project is how design specifications are created from all the above activities. Traditionally, it has been written text reports and specifications.
Such documents have several problems:
Another change is the elimination of distributed paper or electronic documents (PDFs), as these have an eternal revision problem. Instead, the models and any data or written information needed in addition are stored on collaboration systems as living items, with strict version and revision control and real-time access for all in the project. Ideally, this shall be part of or integrated with the company’s 3D design suite. It’s an important part of a paperless project, where all information is stored in an online information system with strong workflow and revision control.
A third action is to compose cross-functional teams when downstream specification and instruction work is done to make sure detailed design, system, production, and support aspects are covered in the information that gets created.
The major gains from improvements in the Preliminary design phase will not be a faster phase but a more accurate, unambiguous, and up-to-date information set to the thousands of users of the data from Preliminary design. The cross-functional teaming also makes sure the information is complete, covering all aspects of how to create an aircraft project for its lifecycle.
The early capability to capture design information and specifications in an integrated digital design suite like the Daussuakt 3DEXPERIENCE will give gains for the rest of the project.