Manufacturing

Tech Trends: Flying High

1 Mar, 2005 By: Arnie Williams

PTC Helps Airbus Megajet Take Off


This past January 18 witnessed quite a commotion at an aircraft assembly plant in the southern French city of Toulouse. The event—the unveiling of the world's largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380—drew more than 5,000 people, including the leaders of France, Germany, Spain and Great Britain. Before you wonder whether Europe's leaders don't have better things to do than attend commercial aircraft ribbon-cutting ceremonies, consider that during the 10-year development period that brought the Airbus A380 to this unveiling, these countries collectively invested more than $13 billion dollars in the program (figure 1).

 Figure 1. Airbus forecasts that growing air frieght demand will generate the need for 700 new and 2,400 converted freighters between now and 2023. With 10% more range than todays largest aircraft, and with lower fuel costs due to lighter-weight design and construction, the Airbus A380 is sure to be a main player in the airfreight market.
Figure 1. Airbus forecasts that growing air frieght demand will generate the need for 700 new and 2,400 converted freighters between now and 2023. With 10% more range than todays largest aircraft, and with lower fuel costs due to lighter-weight design and construction, the Airbus A380 is sure to be a main player in the airfreight market.

The emergence of Airbus' (www.airbus.com) corporate identity today as one company is a testament to the wisdom of forming the European Union, according to many of the top brass in attendance at the Toulouse ceremony. In 1999, the early days of the Airbus venture, Airbus was a collaboration of separate companies based in each of the partner countries. Their goal was to find a way to work together to crack the United States market dominated by the likes of Boeing and other giants of the aerospace industry.

The market was (and is) an attractive one and a driving incentive for the partner companies to find a way to work together as one enterprise. According to global market forecasts released by Airbus this past December, the air passenger and freight market is expected to experience strong growth through 2023 with the need for more than 17,300 new passenger and freighter aircraft worth more than $1.9 trillion. Furthermore, Europe is expected to carry the largest share of RPKs (revenue passenger kilometers) at 32% compared to Asia's 31% and 26% in the United States.

To be a primary player in this high-growth market, the separate European companies needed to find a way to collaborate as they became one company. In 1999, with the launch of PTC's Windchill (www.ptc.com) they discovered the solution to their dilemma and the backbone of what was to become their PLM (product lifecycle management) system.

The Twin Growth of Windchill and Airbus

As Airbus merged its partner companies together as one company just before 2000, the partners knew that they needed to collaborate more closely and that technology was the answer. It might be a bit surprising that a venture with such high stakes would select a startup technology such as PTC's Windchill, but the group considered PTC a forward-looking company with its Internet-centric approach to PLM.

"Airbus liked the scalability," says Berry Gibson, director of aerospace and defense product and market strategy for PTC. "We offered a modular architecture, so they could share complex information across a wide network of people. They could use modules for product structure management, change management, release to manufacture—all as needed" (figure 2).

Figure 2. Airbus designers and engineers consider PTC Windchills Internet-centric modular approach to PLM to be a good fit with its needs. The clear interface and easy-to-use approach to such processes as release-to-manufacture were a big plus. (Note: this image is a generic PTC Windchill image and does not depict Airbus data.)
Figure 2. Airbus designers and engineers consider PTC Windchills Internet-centric modular approach to PLM to be a good fit with its needs. The clear interface and easy-to-use approach to such processes as release-to-manufacture were a big plus. (Note: this image is a generic PTC Windchill image and does not depict Airbus data.)

The partner companies that became Airbus used several different design tools. Most CAD work was done in CADD5i, inherited from ComputerVision, with a mix of CATIA V4 and V5 seats. "Windchill was able to manage a heterogeneous CAD environment," says Gibson, "and also tie into the SAP ERP (enterprise resourse planning) backbone."

The partnership of PTC Windchill and Airbus has been a stellar success, notes Gibson, with Airbus consistently a Top 5 Windchill customer during the past five years and counting. There are more than 6,000 users of Windchill in the Airbus enterprise.

Gibson also credits Airbus with having a significant influence on Windchill product development. The need to accommodate different cultures, systems and environments with a common data definition was a primary driver of the Windchill product roadmap, admits Gibson (figure 3).

Figure 3. With the need to accommodate different languages, cultures and working environments, the PTC Windchill interface for project management needed to be simple, clear and easy to use.
Figure 3. With the need to accommodate different languages, cultures and working environments, the PTC Windchill interface for project management needed to be simple, clear and easy to use.

On the Airbus side of the fence, the company credits Windchill with providing the capability to rely on an unprecedented number of digital mockups, dramatically reducing the number of physical prototypes needed. The ability to perform early design-to-manufacture verifications has led to reduced waste and substantial cost savings.

Engineering, too, credits Windchill with helping solve a key problem with an aircraft of the size and range of the Airbus A380. The advantage of studying digital mockups collaboratively to pinpoint areas where weight could be reduced, then submitting the redesign for digital mockup evaluations allowed the engineering team to achieve its goals much more quickly than previous methods would have allowed.

The other advantage of digital mockups occurs because Airbus offers its customers the option of ordering customized cabins (figure 4). Airbus keeps several cabin options in mockup so that specific customer-requested configurations can be delivered with little need for excessive rework—an attractive option in such a competitive market.

Figure 4. Airbus offers customers of the A380 the option of a number of cabin configurations. This PTC Windchill screen capture shows the drag-and-drop approach that enables the extended design team to access and view design configurations. (This is a generic PTC image and does not depict Airbus design data.)
Figure 4. Airbus offers customers of the A380 the option of a number of cabin configurations. This PTC Windchill screen capture shows the drag-and-drop approach that enables the extended design team to access and view design configurations. (This is a generic PTC image and does not depict Airbus design data.)

Flying into the Future

Airbus worked with more than 60 airports during the A380's design cycle to ensure that the aircraft could be accommodated. Singapore Airlines is expected to conduct the first test flight of an A380 in Spring 2006 on one of its London/Singapore routes. That airline is expected to use the 555-passenger, three-class seating configuration. Airbus also offers a two-story configuration that seats as many as 800 passengers, but many companies, such as Virgin Atlantic Airways, which has ordered six of the aircraft, are expected to choose the 500-plus passenger configuration. According to a CNN report, 13 other companies have already placed orders for 149 A380s, which carry a price tag of between $263 and $286 million.

Accolades for the Airbus A380 continue to pile up. As the largest airplane with the longest range and the most fuel-efficient ratings to date, the A380 promises to be stiff competition for other global aerospace passenger and freight carriers. And though it may have played a behind-the-scenes role, says PTC's Gibson, Windchill deserves no small share of the credit.

ARNIE WILLIAMS, former editor-in-chief of Cadence magazine, is a freelance author specializing in the CAD industry. E-mail Arnie at awilliams@grandecom.net.


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