McNAIR: Imagination takes flight


A new type of airplane wing assembled without the use of rivets. Durable plastic sensors manufactured on a 3D printer. Composite materials for building the fuselage of the next generation jumbo jet. At the University of South Carolina’s McNAIR Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research, all of the above are on the drawing board.

“We have lots of ideas,” says mechanical engineering professor and McNAIR Director Zafer Gurdal.

Gurdal is showing off the center’s shimmering 15,000 square-foot laboratory from a second-floor observation area. He gives a similar tour to every potential industry partner or faculty member who expresses an interest in collaboration, and he enjoys it every time.

“These facilities were built in the last ten months,” he says as he peers through the glass at what amounts to several million dollars worth of high-tech, industry-caliber machinery. “If you were here ten months ago, you would be floating in the air.”

Gurdal could be said to be floating on air himself these days. A specialist in composite materials and structures, he’s been fascinated by aerospace since he started building toy rockets as a child in Turkey. Professionally, he’s spent decades contemplating the engineering problems faced by the aerospace industry and now has the tools and the team to truly test his vision.

“We think that this is the first university-based laboratory that has this level of hardware,” says Gurdal. “I have worked in other places and always wanted to have real hardware that we could use to build real structures. This is extremely gratifying.”

As an example, he points to the new fiber placement machine on the lab floor below. Built by Ingersoll Machine Tools, the multi-million dollar behemoth can be programmed to steer carbon fibers into an endless array of complicated patterns. Bundles of fibers, called “tows,” can then be layered one atop another in a manner Gurdal compares to “very large scale 3D printing.”

I have worked in other places and always wanted to have real hardware that we could use to build real structures. This is extremely gratifying.

Zafer Gurdal

With automated hardware we have the capability to put fibers in any direction and any angle that we wish, so we can actually start building layups that are much more complicated than what is currently being produced by industry,” he says. “On top of that, we can also start steering some of these fiber paths so the structures meet the requirements of industrial loads.”

As he explains, a similarly sized version of the same fiber placement machine is used by the Italian aerospace company Alenia Aermacchi to form the large-barrel fuselages of the 787 Dreamliner.

But Gurdal is equally excited by how far he can push his hardware, how using the fiber placement machine in conjunction with additional hardware enhance its functionality. The machine’s large mandrel, capable of turning a 12-foot diameter part, is flanked by a pair of orange KUKA robots mounted at either end of a long robotic track. Each machine is positioned close enough to the others to use them together.

“This gives us seven degrees of motion,” he says. “The fiber placement machine can move up and down, left and right, forward and backward on its axis. And then the mandrel can rotate, providing the seventh degree. The robots add additional degrees of freedom.”

If that sort of mechanical ballet sounds like something you’ve seen before, maybe you have — but in the automotive industry, not aerospace.

“If you go to an automotive plant today, it’s all automated machines and robots that continuously work on the same part, doing quite a few different things at the same time,” Gurdal says. “The idea is to do the same thing for aerospace, to expand the automated manufacturing of parts made by more than one automated machine.” 


McNair Center

Consolidated magic

Down on the floor, laboratory manager Burton Rhodes opens the heavy steel doors of a massive walk-in oven and a comparably large autoclave used to bake injected resin into composite thermoplastic. Measuring approximately 8 x 10 feet apiece, and capable of reaching 800 degrees Fahrenheit, these are “the cookers” used to transform the raw carbon fiber parts built at the other end of the room into durable, industry-grade composites.

“Basically, the carbon fiber gives you good tensile strength,” Rhodes explains. “When you inject resin and submit it to pressure, that’s when it becomes consolidated. You’re trying to get the perfect combination of light characteristics and strong characteristics.” 

The grandson of a programmer who worked on the Mars Viking mission for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Rhodes has been interested in aerospace as long as he can remember and describes it as a sort of “family calling.” His specialty, though, is the welding and joining of composites, whether through high voltage induction welding or an unusual technique called friction-stir welding.

“You insert a tool into a joint and as it turns, the two parts mesh together,” Rhodes says. “That’s useful for either non-reinforced or short fiber reinforced materials. You can’t do it with the long-fiber reinforced, but for short fiber it’s an interesting technique.”

To Gurdal, whose eyes light up at the possibilities, the technique represents yet another area to explore. “It doesn’t melt but it whips the material and then reconnects it,” he says. “It’s almost like magic.”


McNair Center

A degree of fun

Since its establishment in 2011, McNAIR has devoted considerable energy to building relationships in the aerospace industry, and the effort is paying off. In 2014, the center secured a multi-year research contract with Dutch aerospace manufacturer Fokker Technologies, and in August 2015 the university announced another agreement with Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, that could pump as much as $5 million into more than a dozen new research projects.

But for all the commercial interest in McNAIR’s high-end hardware and talented researchers, the center’s core mission is to educate the next generation of aerospace engineers. Back at the center’s office with the rest of his team, Gurdal is quick to point that out.

“For me, the research is both a product and an ingredient of education,” he says. “By doing what we are doing, we expose our students to real life problems. Of course, solving problems along the way is a tremendous value to our partners and will help us to expand our programs.”

The sentiment is echoed by McNAIR deputy director and newly appointed SmartState Endowed Chair in Multifunctional Materials and Structures, Michel van Tooren, who points to the specific needs of companies like Boeing, which arrived in North Charleston, S.C. in 2011.

“Part of Boeing’s Research and Technology center that used to be in Seattle is now in South Carolina, and something like forty percent of that group is Ph.Ds,” says van Tooren. “They also need bachelor’s on the work floor and master’s in the engineering office. Other companies all have that same basic mix. We have to fill the whole pipeline.”

Of course, producing that caliber of graduate means attracting a particular type of student and providing opportunities to wrestle with precisely the sort of real-world problems industry is now bringing to McNAIR. And as assistant professor of computer aided design and manufacturing Ramy Harik explains, that has a lot of appeal to students who enjoy seeing real-world results.

You can design something in the virtual world and it starts to behave like a real thing. That’s really fun. With respect to our students, I like to think we’re providing not just an education but a valuable life experience.

Ramy Harik

“You can do practically anything with these tools, and it’s not just pure design,” says Harik, who works closely with students studying the coding and tool path planning needed to operate the fiber placement machine out on the lab floor.

“You can play with motion and with functionality,” he says. “You can design something in the virtual world and it starts to behave like a real thing. That’s really fun. With respect to our students, I like to think we’re providing not just an education but a valuable life experience.”

For van Tooren, who got interested in mechanical engineering building cars out of disassembled motorbikes as a teenager in the Netherlands, aerospace is also a gateway to whole spectrum of career opportunities because it excites the imagination and incorporates so many different disciplines.

“That’s the nice thing about aerospace,” he says. “Students will come because they love rockets and they love aircraft, and because it’s fun. After one year they find out that it’s also a very multidisciplinary field. Materials, flight mechanics, design — it’s all in there, but first you have to get them interested.” 

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