US institute says policy helps manufacturers to smooth product-development cycles

Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are outsourcing more research and development work as an alternative to maintaining their internal laboratories, says the Kansas-based National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR). Affiliated with Wichita State University, NIAR is upgrading its facilities to compete with other university aerospace R&D laboratories for growing OEM work.

"OEMs have to keep their labs up to date from peak to peak in the product-development cycle, which can be two years for a Cessna but 10 years for a Boeing," says Dr John Tomblin, NIAR executive director. Laboratory use is highest during the development and certification phases, but tails off during production, making it difficult for one company to keep people and equipment current in the "valleys" between new models. By working for several OEMs, independent laboratories can stay up to date, he says.

Aircraft manufacturers moving R&D "off site" has boosted NIAR's funding by 226% over the past decade, to just over $18 million last year, says Tomblin. In 2002, the institute ranked seventh among US university aerospace R&D laboratories and it is the largest standalone organisation of its kind, he says - research is performed by institute employees, not university students.

Faced with increasing competition for OEM work from other laboratories, NIAR is upgrading its capabilities, installing a $10 million icing tunnel and $2 million full-scale structural testing facility. A $6 million modernisation of the institute's subsonic windtunnel has been completed, including active cooling and a new balance.

A new $3 million acceleration sled capable of 75g loads for crashworthiness testing of seats, restraints and cockpits will become operational this month.

NIAR's ageing-aircraft laboratory, opened two years ago, has "taken off faster than expected", says Tomblin, with heavy funding from the US Department of Defense and work for the US Federal Aviation Administration on ageing commuter aircraft. The institute's virtual-reality centre is being used to develop ways to accelerate aircraft design and manufacturing and can be linked to the upgraded windtunnel to allow overseas customers to see their models being tested.

As the FAA's centre of excellence for composites and advanced materials, NIAR is involved in certification of new joining processes such as friction-stir and laser welding, Tomblin says, and has been tasked by NASA with developing performance standards for advanced materials that can then be used by OEMs in aircraft design.



Source: Flight International