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SME Speaks: Aerospace and Motorsports: Going Farther and Faster Together

When you compare the aerospace industry with the performance racing industry, it's exciting to see the similarities between the manufacturing applications and approaches used by their top engineers. These similarities demonstrate the value of sharing technical knowledge across manufacturing industries.

I'm a personal example of how technologies and interests transfer between these sets of industries. Although I have made my career in aerospace at The Boeing Company, I first became interested in the discipline of engineering at the knee of my father who was a race car driver and service station owner. I can truly say that automotive and specialty racing shaped my perspective and fueled my desire for learning.   

My thirst for knowledge was an easy thing to quench as a youngster growing up in the Pacific Northwest, where what is now the NASCAR Northwest Series originated near my home. In addition to racing, my late father owned and operated a Texaco service station for 46 years, so I had the opportunity to see the guts of an engine and the undercarriage of a car—things most children don't get the chance to see. This was an opportunity not only to spend time with my father, but to do what kids do best: ask questions. My upbringing inspired in me a strong need to know "Why does that work the way it does?" and to think, "That's cool, but I wonder if it can be made better."

That inquisitiveness also helped my father and our team do well on the track. Our team did not have the most money, but we always had the most fun. Our time racing on dirt could not be matched, but transitioning to asphalt proved to be a challenge. It gave us an opportunity to learn many new things in chassis design and setup, engine performance, outfitting the car for quick changes during pit stops, and techniques designed to perform in much longer and more grueling races.

As we continued to race and I started my engineering studies, I was often able to use the racetrack as a laboratory outside of my classroom where I could apply the theories I had just learned. It was exciting to be able to work out programs on my HP-41 that could easily tell our team what one turn in the right front corner would do to the setup of the entire car relative to weight distribution and handling. This curiosity for understanding how things work and what makes them go faster has served me well, first through engineering school and now into aerospace. I see parallels every day.

My company and others in aerospace share many similarities with those companies that manufacture high-performance dragsters, motorcycles, and racing boats.

  • We all develop innovative, high-performance vehicles. In my company's case, I offer the Boeing-Northrop-Grumman team's Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) as an example. The CEV is a human-rated spacecraft that will hopefully someday carry astronauts to the moon, Mars, and beyond. This will undoubtedly drive the need for new materials and new ways to design.
  • Aerodynamics is paramount and has tremendous impact on safety, styling, and performance.
  • We rely on specialized mechanisms, lightweight materials, and composites.
  • We rely on many of the same manufacturing technologies for joining materials and developing aerodynamic design.
  • We have paramount concern for the safety of our equipment, and of the passengers in our vehicles. Designing vehicles so that their occupants can withstand many times the force of gravity (G-forces) is a unique requirement seen only in aerospace and motorsports.
  • We all operate in world-class manufacturing environments where we know our products will face high speed, harsh environments, and significant stress.

Many specific products and processes have applications in both aerospace and motorsports industries. For instance, self-contained field recorders are used in aerospace for advanced engineering tests, and in motorsports for crash recording. Telemetry data are a valued source of information in both fields, helping drive design for more efficiencies and improved safety. Motorsports also utilizes aerospace-adapted applications for ball bearings, sealing and engineering plastics, computational fluid dynamics, and more.

While winning drivers seem to get all the attention, engineers' contributions to winning races are also becoming known and celebrated. For instance, Matt Borland, Ryan Newman, and Michael Nelson—three of Penske Racing South's most skilled engineers—received honorary VIP memberships from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers late last year. In Ryan's case, applying his engineering skills helps provide advantages most teams don't get from their drivers. He not only understands what it's like in the cockpit of the car, but what may be causing those effects from a materials and design perspective.

As 2006 SME President, I am proud that a key part of the Society's mission is to provide forums for manufacturing engineers to educate each other and create the best collective "body of knowledge" across industries. We are offering new events like next month's Manufacturing for Performance Conference & Exposition in Indianapolis—where manufacturers can find ways to improve performance, using advanced materials, prototypes, and tooling for improved quality and safety—and The Total Manufacturing Experience (TME) in March in Los Angeles, where participants will be immersed in a complete learning experience that moves from classroom, to exhibit floor, to networking and recognition activities. With a special focus on automation and assembly, the TME will connect professionals from key industries, including aerospace and defense, medical, automotive, electronics, and more.

As engineers, we are always looking to build products that go farther and faster, withstand more stress, and last longer. As global markets continue to drive the need for innovation and technology transfer across the manufacturing enterprise and in all industries, learning from each other is the smartest thing we can do. Taking advantage of these venues and soaking in all the knowledge available to you will help your company take the checkered flag.


Spotlight on NASA and Nanotechnology

The NASA Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA) has been involved in nanotechnology efforts since early 1996. Its Center for Nanotechnology focuses on experimental research and development in nano and bio-technologies, including complementary modeling and simulation efforts.

Tasked with developing novel concepts in nanotechnology for NASA's future needs in electronics, computing, sensors, and advanced miniaturization of all systems, the Center responds to specific grand challenges, including the human exploration and colonization of space, autonomous "thinking" spacecraft, safe and affordable aviation, and the evolution of the universe and life.   

Mission needs include: Onboard computing systems for future autonomous intelligent vehicles that are powerful, compact, demonstrate low power consumption, and are radiation-hard; high-performance computing (Tera and Peta-flops) for:

  • Processing satellite data,
  • Integrated space vehicle engineering, and
  • Climate modeling.

Also required are: revolutionary computing technologies; smart, compact sensors and ultrasmall probes; advanced miniaturization of all systems; microspacecraft; and micro and nano-rovers for planetary exploration.

In nanotechnology R&D, the Center is working on controlled, patterned growth of carbon nanotubes (CNT) for device, display, and sensor applications, large-scale production of CNTs for structural, high-heat-flux material applications, characterization of nano materials, and nanotube-based devices.

Why is nanotechnology a major area at NASA? First, advanced miniaturization is a key thrust area to enable new science and exploration missions. Ultra-small sensors and power sources, as well as communication, navigation, and propulsion systems with very low mass, volume, and power consumption are needed. Revolutions in electronics and computing will allow reconfigurable, autonomous spacecraft.

Nanotechnology presents a whole new spectrum of opportunities to build device components and systems for entirely new space architectures. These include networks of ultrasmall probes on planetary surfaces, micro-rovers that drive, hop, fly, and burrow, and a collection of microspacecraft making a variety of measurements.


This article was first published in the January 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 1/1/2006

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