The sky is not the limit

USC’s McNAIR Center gains altitude in research and education

If the McNAIR Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research magically sprouted wings, it would probably be some kind of cool experimental aircraft with an advanced composite fiber fuselage.

That wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination considering the roster of aerospace talent the center has attracted and the collective energy of 50 undergraduate and graduate students who rub elbows there every day. But rewind the tape four years to when the center had only a couple of offices, four people and no research equipment. Imagining the McNAIR Center back then as anything more than a paper airplane would have required a real leap of faith.

Taking flight

“When I arrived, basically, there was nothing,” says Michel van Tooren, who started out as the McNAIR Center’s second research professor and was recently appointed the center’s director. “But when I was teaching at Delft University of Technology, I had been awarded as the second most entrepreneurial professor in the Netherlands in 2010. I know how a startup works; I know how to write a business plan and raise money. And here, at least, there was a startup donation to get things moving.”

That $5 million pledge from Carolina alumna and benefactor Darla Moore laid the groundwork for the center, complemented by an additional $5 million pledge from Anita Zucker, chairwoman and CEO of the Intertech Group. USC alumna Marva Smalls, an executive vice president at Viacom and Nickelodeon, gave $1 million to endow scholarships for minority students from the Pee Dee region majoring in computer science and engineering at USC.

Zafer Gurdal, an aerospace engineer and the center’s first director, van Tooren and business manager Martin Keaney together got the center ready for takeoff. After acquiring a fiber-placement machine, a set of robots and an induction heater and outfitting a large research lab in the S.C. Research Authority building on Catawba Street, the center began to take flight.

“By the beginning of 2016, people started seeing what we were going to do in terms of a research agenda,” van Tooren says. “That got Boeing interested, and we signed our first big contract ($5 million) with them to look at manufacturing technology, especially fiber placement, induction welding and nondestructive evaluation.”

One of van Tooren’s ongoing goals — and one that’s close to being realized — is the creation of an undergraduate degree program in aerospace engineering within the College of Engineering and Computing. A small master’s program is already in place, and a full bachelor’s degree program will create a pipeline of students to make the center’s activities sustainable. 

“We now have a specialized section of the introduction to engineering that emphasizes aerospace engineering, and there are 50 freshmen who indicated during enrollment that this is their goal — to become aerospace engineers,” van Tooren says. “This could be our first cohort of aerospace engineering majors.”

There are 50 freshmen who indicated during enrollment that this is their goal — to become aerospace engineers.

Michel van Tooren

Through the McNAIR fellowship program, an initiative of Ramy Harik, an assistant professor in the McNAIR Center who joined in 2014, undergraduates commit at least five hours per week to research activities at the center, working under the supervision of graduate students, faculty and lab staff. Those who complete three semesters get a certificate, internship experiences and can then apply for summer jobs at the center. 

‘I have a lot of fun working here’

Master’s and Ph.D. students are finding exceptional opportunities to conduct research at the center. Chris Sacco came to the College of Engineering and Computing after completing a bachelor’s in physics and applied math at Presbyterian College. He’s begun a master’s degree program in aerospace engineering and is immersed in a research project that involves robotic optical inspection of parts built with the center’s Ingersoll automated fiber-placement machine. It’s the same type of machine Boeing uses to build composite fuselages for its Dreamliner 787 in Charleston.

“It’s a very neat technology, but occasionally you get a twist or wrinkle in the carbon fiber, which can affect the structural integrity of your part,” Sacco says. “I’m writing software now that will allow the robot to say, ‘We have defects here, here and here.’ We’re using lots of machine-learning algorithms to get more fine detail and there’s a data fusion aspect with multiple sensors that can process data in real time.”

Jessie Pandher, a Ph.D. student who earned his master’s in mechanical engineering with van Tooren as his adviser, is conducting research on using thermoplastics for airplane components, including main structures such as wings and fuselage. Like carbon fiber composites, thermoplastics combine high strength and low weight — far better than aluminum, the traditional manufacturing material for aircraft.

“The main reason for the drive to use thermoplastics is that they’re easier to work with than fiber composites, and they can be easily recycled,” Pandher says. “Composites with carbon fiber are great for their use but difficult to maintain and repair. Thermoplastic materials can be induction welded, so they’re much easier to repair.”

As a master’s student Pandher worked with van Tooren on a military-funded project to design a foldable-wing unmanned aerial vehicle — basically, a drone that can be deployed from a fighter jet for surveillance purposes. “I have a lot of fun working here,” he says. “It’s why I decided to stay and pursue my Ph.D.”

Wout De Backer earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, one of the top institutions in the world for for such programs. He just completed a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a focus on aerospace engineering at Carolina, where he’s been working on 3D printing with continuous carbon fiber.

"My assignment was to find a way to print with continuous carbon fiber, but before we did that we had to do machine design, material development and software development,” De Backer says. “3D printing is ideal for making complex shapes with low volume, especially parts like HVAC ducting, brackets and other pieces that need to be strong and lightweight.”

De Backer’s research was sponsored by TIGHITCO, an industrial company with a plant in South Carolina that designs and fabricates engineered components for aerospace applications for customers including Boeing and Gulfstream.

“My Ph.D. work here channeled me into learning to work with industrial equipment and to design complex machinery to do what we needed to do,” De Backer says. “Now that I’m about to graduate, I have a lot of career options ahead.”   

High-flying deals

Boeing’s big contract with the McNAIR Center grabbed attention, but the center has been inking deals with many other aerospace partners, as well, including Fokker, NASA, GE Renewable, Carbon Conversions and Ingersoll, which provided the carbon fiber-placement equipment. Many of Ingersoll’s customers rent the McNair Center’s machine and harness the center’s technical expertise or contract with the center to build sample parts for testing.

The McNAIR Center will soon lease more space in the SCRA building to welcome the Center for Predictive Maintenance, a long-term research project led by mechanical engineering professor Abdel Bayoumi that has focused on Army helicopter maintenance.

“We’ve focused in the beginning on composites manufacturing because that’s what Boeing is using at their Charleston plant, but we need to give our students some exposure to aircraft design, as well,” van Tooren says. “We need to go way beyond materials design.”

The state of South Carolina has more than 400 aerospace-related companies that cover the whole supply chain. It makes a lot of sense to widen the range of engineers we train here. There are so many companies and so many potential opportunities for our graduates.

 Michel van Tooren

To that end, the center director envisions building a wind tunnel in the laboratory and a flight cage for experimenting with drones. He also points to the broadening of disciplines from which new aerospace faculty are coming — not just mechanical engineering but also electrical, chemical and integrated information technology.

“The state of South Carolina has more than 400 aerospace-related companies that cover the whole supply chain,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense to widen the range of engineers we train here. There are so many companies and so many potential opportunities for our graduates.”

The future looks bright for the aerospace industry in South Carolina — and for the McNAIR Center’s plans to grow with it, van Tooren says. He references a recent economic impact study released by the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness that shows the impact of aerospace on South Carolina’s economy has grown to $19 billion, an increase of $2 billion since 2014.

“This year’s research shows a clear indication that the industry is diversifying and trending towards sustainable growth. We see that the majority of firms continue to be small businesses with fewer than five employees,” says Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the Darla Moore School of Business. “We also see growth, not just in aircraft manufacturing, but also in engine manufacturing, instruments manufacturing and other types of firms.”

All of that translates into more opportunity for the McNAIR Center to fly higher and farther, van Tooren says. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” he says, “but we’re growing every month.”