Digital simulation tools have transformed the designing and testing of new aircraft, as well as the way they are manufactured and sustained.

The universal adoption of digital 3-D design tools has truly changed forever the way that advanced products are created, from original concept studies, development, testing, and manufacturing, right through the lifecycle to maintainability, future enhancement, and long-term support. The ability to share detailed specifications and test data between all partners worldwide, but with controlled access as required throughout the supply chain, enables large and small suppliers to work to common standards and requirements, maintaining the same data accuracy across the network. This has not only saved valuable time, helping to reduce costs, but has brought about higher standards of product quality and, importantly, more traceability, providing a clear picture for project managers who have access in real time to progress at all levels.

Such has been the rapid rate of progress in all aspects of 3-D simulation technology it is hard to believe that its widespread adoption only dates back to the 1980s. The most commercially successful pioneer of digital design tools, originally known as computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM), arrived in the form of the CATIA product line, from Dassault Systèmes. This was a significant breakthrough technology and enabled the aerospace, defense, and automotive sectors in particular to use digital tools to transform the way new products were designed and made.

Before long the obvious advantages of using CAD/CAM methodologies cascaded into every area of manufacturing, as it reduced much uncertainty in complex manufacturing programs and speeded up the process in an ever increasing number of specialist activities. Initially it was seen as a way of eliminating the need for huge numbers of detailed design drawings, which then had to be checked before distributing, and which took more time to modify and then re-check.

CATIA Version 3 introduced a 3-D design capability in 1986 and by 1994, V4 had introduced the more advanced digital mock-up capability. In 1999 V5 introduced a 3-D/ product-lifecycle management tool. A decade later, V6 introduced the Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE platform that has gone on to power brand applications serving 12 industries and a wide portfolio of industry solutions.

Across Scope and Scale

CATIA Version 6 screen image showing how the operator can access the fuel system in its entirety within a 3-D model of the aircraft. (Dassault)
At the opposite end of the scale from multi-billion dollar civil air transports and military programs is the around-the-world record-breaking solar-powered Solar Impulse airplane, which used the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for design and assembly simulation. This permitted the design team of about 50 project engineers to determine the best configuration to adopt in terms of weight and size and cockpit design, as well as how best to assemble the final design, and even how to transport it safely to the initial take-off location.

This project was very complex, involving a combination of new energy and propulsion systems, with a new lightweight airframe. Each element was designed and tested using simulation techniques, with no physical mock-ups. CATIA was used for designing all the individual parts and for evaluating the assembly before manufacturing took place. Even the plies of the carbon fiber structure were defined and optimized in virtual reality, as were the machined tools used to produce the carbon fiber parts.

All the design, test, and manufacturing data was tracked using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform and thus was easy to validate for total part traceability and certification. Without the ability to design and test the Solar Impulse in this simulated format it would have been impossible to develop the project in an affordable way.

Image of how an assembly workstation or maintenance bay can be configured to support a combat aircraft using advanced 3-D simulation tools to test and validate various automated activities on the aircraft line. (Dassault)
In contrast, the design, development, test, and manufacture of the new Airbus A350XWB wide-body jetliner involved around 4000 people on a daily basis, of which 85% were in the supply chain. By adopting the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, and the ENOVIA tool, employees and suppliers were able to collaborate in real time using a unique digital mock up as a common reference. This integrated all necessary data requirements globally and represented a considerable advance over previous digital simulation solutions that comprised many separate elements.