The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) wants the industry to secure the country’s leadership in hypersonic weaponry. The request is no small feat. There are hurdles and complexities surrounding the manufacturing of hypersonic materials and technologies, so the industry needs to figure out how to reliably deliver the requested quantities affordably. It makes sense why only a few hypersonic prototypes have been produced in the U.S. in the last decade.
But with ingenuity in American manufacturing, it is possible to produce the hundreds of hypersonic weapons at the speed demanded by DoD.
The key is to design and model fully integrated thermal protective systems with high-volume production in mind, controlling costs and timeline throughout. Achieving success is based on having the right techniques, machines and tools capable of reaching a high rate on a composite structure. Pair that with the right approach to make advanced materials and a drive to optimize the production system and it’s possible to create a process that can meet the demand to scale-up. Here’s what that looks like.
Automation used at precisely the right points in manufacturing delivers a flexible and agile process. Manufacturers need to apply finely tuned aerospace assembly processes and incorporate automation to benefit hypersonic production.
Automation in the fabrication, inspection and assembly process lets suppliers meet high-rate production needs and reduce costs while maintaining quality. For example, a multi-position robot that can drill holes and install fasteners for a CH-53K helicopter fuselage dramatically reduces assembly costs. This cost reduction is achieved for both low-rate and for full-production quantities. Applying the same principle to hypersonics will yield similar success.
The most significant cost reductions come from designing hypersonics for manufacturability and producibility. What makes or breaks the feasibility of industrialization is whether the parts themselves are designed for lower-cost manufacturing. Bringing the right industrialization partner onto the team at the same point in the process as the build partner enables the right material choices and influences design elements. For example, it’s more efficient for a 787-designed passenger floor, complete with all electrical and hydraulic systems, to be assembled outside of the fuselage and then installed into the completed forward fuselage using a specially-designed quick-connect system. Deploying technologies that improve quality and require fewer tools cuts costs and assembly time.
When it comes to materials, there are many important considerations when building at scale. Materials first must be identified that have minimum properties to enable them to function in the desired application. But it is also important to consider buying, storing, producing, inspecting, assembling, joining and machining. And engineers must understand how to handle their chosen material, how it reacts within certain environments and ages over time, and how to dispose of its excess.
Materials can’t be thought about strictly as materials or treated as separate sub-systems, however; they’re being combined with and designed for certain applications. The future, for example, could be a wing skin that incorporates a battery or an antenna or other electrical-distribution network. Defense agencies need to watch out for silos and push for having a big-picture overview of the entire process.
With the commercial market taking a hit from COVID-19, the timing for hypersonic manufacturing is ripe. Suppliers have capacity and are ready to expand their markets, utilizing years of expertise on the commercial side of the business to help hypersonic production ramp up to full-scale optimization. The industry has what it needs to get this right and deliver hypersonic weaponry on time, on budget and at scale.
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