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From Paper to Projection

New 3-D System Can Help Automate Assembly of Aircraft

Jan. 7, 2013 - 01:57PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
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Assembling a new fighter jet requires hundreds of thousands of parts, all aligned perfectly in a time-draining process. Now a Georgia-based company has developed a solution it says will cut that time significantly — and save millions for cash-strapped programs as the Pentagon looks to save money.

ProjectionWorks, developed by Delta Sigma Co., is a 3-D projection system that puts instructions for assembling complex mechanical parts directly onto the surface of the part, laying out a clean digital road map for assembly.

“Anything where the person building it has a stack of manuals and drawings he’ll need to do his job, this system will make that all go away,” said Roger Richardson, director of business development for Delta Sigma.

The system starts with a computer-aided design (CAD) file for the part that is being assembled, such as a wing. That file is put into a program called Manuscript, which allows engineers to lay out an assembly process into the file, telling the assembly team they want Bolt A put in before Bolt B, just like in a printed instruction manual.

The upgraded CAD file is then loaded into a projector similar to those used in conference rooms, which puts the instructions directly onto the part that is being put together. So instead of requiring a 1,000-page printed manual that needs to be consulted at each step, those assembling the part can see each step of the process, telling them exactly where every fastener and bolt needs to go.

“All the things you had to write down to describe,” Richardson said, “you can just show it to them now.”

The first customer to purchase the system was Lockheed Martin in its Marietta, Ga., facility, where it was used to speed production of the F-22 Raptor. While production of the stealth fighter ended in 2011, Richardson said the system is still in use on the F-35, another stealth fighter, as well as the C-130 and C-5 cargo planes and the P-3, a maritime patrol plane.

Northrop Grumman is expected to begin using the system this year, he added.

ProjectionWorks is part of the Fastener Insertion Live Link System (FILLS) designed by Delta Sigma in conjunction with Variation Reduction Solutions, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

FILLS automates the measuring of holes for fasteners and sends a request for the correct number and size of the fasteners required, which is then projected in a color-coded map onto the part to be assembled. Richardson claims the assembly can get fasteners in 30 to 40 holes per minute, as opposed to an average of one per minute before the system was in place.

FILLS also provides an advantage over the service life of the aircraft. Data is kept on each part assembled, so when a plane comes in for maintenance, the repair team can instantly call up the data on the parts — when it was installed, what kind of fastener was used, and even who did the initial installation, cutting down on wasted repair time.

In November, the companies received the U.S. Defense Department’s 2012 Defense Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) Achievement Award for the system. The award announcement cited “significant savings in labor hours and improved quality.

“The data projected can be calibrated so physical features are illuminated and annotated with information targeted to that specific structural or electrical location, thus eliminating the challenging and often confusing process of interpreting blueprint drawings as they relate to work in progress,” the award announcement stated.

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