Virtual testing gives lightweight planes lift-off

December 13, 2009

Monash University aeronautical engineers are working with the world's leading aerospace company to fast-track the design and construction of a new generation of super lightweight and efficient passenger airplanes.

A research team lead by Professor Brian Falzon has received funding from the Australian Research Council and Boeing Research and Technology Australia, based in Melbourne, to help improve the process modelling capability for manufacturing large carbon-fibre composite structures used on passenger aircraft.

An expert in advanced aerostructures in the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Falzon has developed sophisticated computational models to comprehensively test the design and damage tolerance of composite-structured aircraft control surfaces, including flaps and ailerons.

He has also developed simulation models that allowed multiple virtual tests to be carried out simultaneously in a fraction of the time, ensuring optimum design and condensing months of testing into just hours. "Designing and testing composite structures for aircraft is very costly and time-consuming, so that has been an obstacle for manufacturers," Professor Falzon said.

"It entails extensive physical testing, from small-scale tests to the structural testing of large sections such as the tail, fuselage sections and wing boxes. Even a relatively simple structural test can take days to plan and execute.

"This technique enables us to really optimise structures in a way that wasn't possible before - at least not in feasible timeframes. My research is really about creating a 'cradle-to-grave' virtual testing environment."

Professor Falzon said carbon-fibre composites have been in use on passenger aircraft for some time, mostly on non-critical structures, but Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, which will have its first test flights in the coming month, will use an unprecedented level of the lightweight material. Fifty per cent of the new Boeing 787's airframe will be lightweight carbon-fibre composite, including the fuselage.

"It will represent the first example of what is basically an all-composite passenger aircraft. It will be lighter and more fuel efficient than any other aircraft currently in operation," he said.

"Lightweight carbon-fibre composites are much lighter, stronger and more resistant to fatigue and corrosion than the metallic alloys conventionally used in aircraft production, so they have many advantages in terms of energy efficiency and environmental impact.

"All-composite passenger aircraft are the way of the future and we will need to continue using, and further refining, this virtual environment to allow the components on this new era of aircraft to be designed, tested and manufactured as quickly and efficiently as commercially possible."
-end-
Monash University was ranked 45 in the world in the most recent Times Higher Education Supplement rankings. Monash has campuses in Melbourne, regional Victoria, Malaysia and South Africa, and research centres in Mumbai, India, and Prato, Italy.

Monash University

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