Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc
Article adapted from Boeing Media release – December 03, 2021
Boeing’s Melbourne facility recently commenced its fifth Boeing Airpower Teaming System aircraft, as the program continues its rigorous ground and flight testing. In late September, Boeing Australia also revealed the final assembly of the uncrewed aircraft will be at Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba, Queensland.
Also known as Loyal Wingman, the Airpower Teaming System is an uncrewed fighter-like aircraft designed to act in a team to protect and project force alongside other crewed and uncrewed aircraft. The aircraft is designed for fighter like flight performance with a range of more than 2000 nautical miles.
The 38 feet long (11.7m) aircraft is Australia’s first sovereign-designed and produced military combat aircraft in over 50 years. It is the Boeing’s first unscrewed system to be designed and developed in Australia and the company’s largest investment in a new unscrewed aircraft program outside the United States.
The first aircraft rolled out of the Melbourne factory in May 2020, which is also home to Boeing Aerostructures Australia and Boeing Australia’s R&D facilities. The site called on its roots from heritage companies Government Aircraft Factory and Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation as well as its commercial airplane experience to design the air vehicle and production system. “We approached the design of the air vehicle and production system together with a “design for cost” philosophy,” said Andrew Glynn, director of Airpower Teaming System Vehicle Design and Production. “While we’ve developed a clean sheet design featuring many new technologies, we’ve also made smart decisions by incorporating off-the-shelf components and leveraging digital engineering to optimise both speed-to-market and design producibility.”
More than 35 Australian companies, including BAE Systems Australia, RUAG Australia, AME Systems and Ferra Engineering, are involved in the production of the aircraft. “By collaborating with our Australian industry team, throughout the design process we’ve been able to incorporate ‘design for manufacture’ features across all air vehicle components and sub-systems,” he said.
The team adopted three key manufacturing innovations for the Airpower Teaming System, in the areas of robotic drill and fill, shimless assembly and full-size determinant assembly to significantly reduce assembly costs, compared with traditional methods,” said Glynn. “We’ve completely removed manual drilling from our production system, improving safety, quality and efficiency across our manufacturing operations.
“To achieve this, we have designed all components to have pre-drilled holes by our suppliers at the sub-component level, allowing the final assembly to snap together without the need for any manual drilling in the factory.
The Airpower Teaming System team also took advantage of Melbourne’s commercial manufacturing aircraft experience on Boeing 787 wings’ trailing edge. The unique carbon fiber technology, the legacy research for which was undertaken in Melbourne with the Cooperative Research Centre for Advanced Composites Structures, enables the components to be cured without a traditional autoclave significantly reducing the capital facilitation costs.
“Our team has produced Boeing’s largest resin-infused single composite components for the Loyal Wingman leveraging proven technology,” said Adnan Raghdo, director and Chief Engineer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Fabrication, Composite Capability. “Extensive computational modelling was used up front to simulate and optimise the manufacturing process which enabled ‘virtual learning’ ahead of the first part.” The team also realised the benefits of additive manufacturing, printing a large number of flyaway parts on-site to help support rapid insertion of the prototype aircraft and adoption of digital engineering. Boeing Melbourne will continue to support the design, composite component manufacture and development of the program, with the final assembly of the Airpower Teaming System to commence at the Wellcamp Defence and Aerospace Precinct by the middle of the decade – pending orders.