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A Multi-Disciplinary Ecosystem for Applied Learning

Waruna Seneviratne
By Waruna Seneviratne Director, Advanced Technologies Lab for Aerospace Systems, Wichita State University National Institute for Aviation Research

To meet increasing demand for the modernization of technologies, aircraft OEMs and their suppliers must undergo significant technology advancements and future workforce need advanced hybrid, scalable, flexible and extensible tools to adapt to growing complexities. Manufacturing-centric educational programs that encompass various science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines throughout a product’s lifecycle—from conceptual design to fleet sustainment—require an established ecosystem (both infrastructure and resources) around manufacturing innovation.

To successfully integrate traditional design and manufacturing processes with novel advanced technologies and digital engineering, educational and outreach programs must prepare workers with tools and applied-learning experience necessary to utilize scientific, mathematics and engineering principles during production to meet demands. In addition to preparing the future workforce, efforts must be expanded to integrate the current workforce in seamlessly adapting to advancements in the workplace through seminars and outreach programs.

To this end, Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) established the Advanced Technologies Lab for Aerospace Systems (ATLAS) in 2019 as a multi-disciplinary manufacturing ecosystem to develop a workforce that is trained on advanced manufacturing systems. This manufacturing innovation center aligns with NIAR’s mission to strengthen university research capabilities, provide applied learning opportunities for students, and support the aviation and manufacturing industries.

ATLAS is equipped with manufacturing systems for automated fiber placement (AFP), automated tape laying (ATL), automated fiber patch placement (FPP), thermoforming and injection molding for multi-functional integrated structures, and a large robotic additive manufacturing system capable of manufacturing additive metal and/or polymer parts and AFP. In addition, ATLAS is fully equipped with support infrastructure for these operations such as thermoset and thermoplastic prepreg machine, precision material slitting for AFP/ATL/FPP, consolidation press for preparing fiber-reinforced organosheets for thermoforming, digital manufacturing simulation tools, and processing ovens and autoclaves for high-temperature material systems.

Transforming Industry 3.0 Technologies into Industry 4.0 Applications

To take full advantage of automation, it must be coupled with advanced materials and agile manufacturing techniques, model-based engineering for process-to-performance, machine learning (ML) for decision making and artificial intelligence (AI) for process optimization. Furthermore, matured automated technologies from the automotive industry can be implemented in aerospace for improving manufacturing rates and agility, but require process optimization for achieving aerospace-quality requirements.

Research tasks are designed to transform promising technologies into proven manufacturing methods through scalable demonstrations of model-based engineering solutions and sensor-based data analytics. NIAR researchers have developed in-process inspection systems that use ML for defect recognition, augmented reality for visualization and AI for process improvements. One of these systems won the JEC International Award for AI in 2023.

Funded by government and industry, ATLAS’ research—including analysis validated by building block experiments—at NIAR foster innovation and encourage manufacturers to adopt and scale up technologies that are otherwise capital-intensive, time-consuming and/or high-risk for insertion into to new programs. As a result, manufacturing and technology demonstrations are carried out in scale for easy adoption into aircraft programs. 

Creating a Pipeline of Skilled Engineers

As part of an applied-learning university, creating a pipeline of industry-ready engineers is critical to NIAR’s mission and success. ATLAS is equipped with the necessary tools to prepare a highly skilled workforce trained in the hardware, software and processes for future factories so that industry can make them productive upon graduation with minimal training. Without this type of hands-on experience, it can take two years of training to make a new graduate productive in an industry setting.

Every year, about 100 students gain experience in all aspects of manufacturing through NIAR ATLAS. The research staff is exposed to the same or comparable technologies used for manufacturing advanced structures with automated technologies.

Students are mentored and supervised by staff with industry experience. For example, ATLAS senior manager Josh Goertz spent more than 10 years designing and installing AFP/ATL equipment. He now mentors research staff and students for AFP operations, and assists in developing training classes for AFP operation and maintenance. Similarly, Joel Schule, a manager in the manufacturing simulation department, has 13 years of experience related to automated manufacturing simulations and robot operations programming. He now mentors ATLAS researchers and develops training classes for robot programming. 

Manufacturing research and prototyping is highly competitive and typically carried out within industry research and development centers to protect intellectual properties. To create a secure space for industry partners, ATLAS’ five AFP systems (supplied by Coriolis, Electroimpact and Mikrosam) are placed in their own clean rooms with electronic access control. NIAR also holds AS9100 and ISO 9001:2015 certification with the scope of advanced composite manufacturing, machining, autoclave processing and inspections for industry and defense programs.

The availability of multiple industry-scale automated manufacturing systems from major U.S. and European equipment vendors enables industry partners to conduct research from material development studies all the way to prototyping full-scale structures within the same environment. Each of these fiber-placement and injection-molding systems has unique features that provide numerous options for manufacturing solutions. Users can take advantage of virtual manufacturing processes to identify the most effective solution for producing a new part design.

NIAR provides a proving ground for future investment without capital expenditures, long lead time or downtime for equipment modification, essentially allowing r&d teams to “try before they buy.” The research staff and students provide cost-effective and timely solutions, working with industry and government partners to troubleshoot and provide solutions to manufacturing challenges.

Workforce Opportunities

In addition to teaching next-generation workers, ATLAS engineers are developing training programs to aid the current workforce. This allows companies to staff and rapidly scale advanced manufacturing operations across multiple production lines. Structured workforce training classes for automated manufacturing equipment programming, operations and maintenance also allows Wichita State University students with no automation or manufacturing experience to support ATLAS research projects.

Digital engineering for all aspects of manufacturing (design optimization, analysis, virtual reality visualization, machine programming and high-fidelity inspections) and robotics for automation are key focus areas for developing a future-ready workforce. Access to a multi-disciplinary manufacturing ecosystem equipped with industry scale technologies and experienced educators paved the way to an applied-learning environment that equip the next generation manufacturing workforce for the factory of the future. Working side-by-side with industry partners sharpens NIAR ATLAS participant’s skills and provides an invaluable networking opportunity. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

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