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Carnegie Mellon engineers are leading a collaborative initiative to develop computational technologies for optimal design and fabrication of complex core structures for the aerospace industry.

Funded by a $970K award from America Makes, the project’s research partners include: Automated Dynamics Corporation; Aurora Flight Sciences; Lockheed Martin Aeronautics; Siemens Corporate Technology; Stratasys; and United Technologies Research Center (part of United Technologies Corporation).

Professors of mechanical engineering Levent Burak Kara, Kenji Shimada, and Burak Ozdoganlar are leading the project, which aims to provide engineers with a software tool that optimizes the design and manufacturing process by taking advantage of 3-D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing.

Cores are internal scaffolds or skeletons that are wrapped in high-performance outer skin materials to form aerodynamic structures, like airplane wings. These cores must be strong enough to withstand the traveling forces of being wrapped in material, yet simple enough in shape to be removed after they have served their purpose, leaving the skin as intact as possible. The last thing an airplane wing needs is excess, unnecessary weight.

Optimizing this process will greatly decrease life-cycle energy costs in the aerospace industry, resulting in thousands to millions of dollars in savings.

Burak Kara, Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

“Because the current process uses traditional fabrication methods, it is labor intensive and expensive,” said Kara. “We want to take advantage of the design space enabled by additive manufacturing with a computational design tool that will identify solutions that humans have not yet conceived. This will take topology optimization to a whole new level.”

How would the design software optimize the traditional process? In addition to reducing design time, it would allow for cores to have more intricate, geometric shapes to increase aerodynamics and functionality. Because these new cores would be 3-D printed from a lightweight polymer material, they could easily be broken into smaller pieces, dissolved, or not need to be removed at all.

“Optimizing this process will greatly decrease life-cycle energy costs in the aerospace industry, resulting in thousands to millions of dollars in savings,” said Kara. A feature of the software is that it will integrate with existing computer-aided design (CAD) platforms.

Another component of the project will focus on workforce education. The project team will develop learning materials such as digitally disseminated lectures, software, and tutorials. A large-scale grand challenge will provide an active, hands-on competition to engage students as well as those in industry.

The project is titled “Optimal design and AM of complex internal core structures for high-performance aerial vehicle production.”