Advanced Materials And Testing Are Improving Vehicle Mechanical Safety

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Boeing's 777x twin-engine jet is finally taking to the skies. Making use of lighter weight aerodynamical materials, Boeing was able to add its largest widebodied and longest winged (150 feet) plane to its fleet. Engineering this feat, however, required several years of testing.

Lighter weight composite materials are delivering many performance advantages but they cannot be a trade-off with vehicle mechanical safety. Mechanical failures are the cause of over 60 percent of traffic accidents and most vehicle recalls, and 20 percent of plane crashes.

To ensure mechanical integrity and performance, over 130 Boeing mechanics were involved in the testing of the parts at a purpose-built testing center. The testing rigor will pay off. The 777x delivers an impressive 10 percent savings in fuel, emissions, and operating costs. 

Nonetheless, as lightweight composite materials make up a greater percentage of vehicles and equipment, the industry seeks ways to improve testing and prototyping, and thusly product time to market.

New Testing Technologies 

Industry 4.0 is hyping the use of augmented reality and virtual reality to revolutionize testing. Visualization tools simulate environments for predictive analytics and preventive maintenance. These virtual worlds are simulating thermal conditions, and vibration and load stress. 

But while the sci-fi-ish capabilities of virtual reality are getting a lot of attention, other technology can perform these functions in the real world. Phased array ultrasonic examination, for example, passes through the walls of an object. Multiple ultrasonic probes working at virtually any angle can examine complex geometries in any material.

Conceivably, working together, AR/VR, and phased array ultrasonic testing could provide insight at the nanostructural and microstructural levels in the future factory. VR could complement the ability of phased array ultrasonic examination services to develop a detailed 3D view of a part.

Smart Sensors and Connectivity

The latest vehicles are equipped with advanced sensor networks to improve testing. In-flight tests, engineers are monitoring the 777x in real-time through a network of sensors. Connected to ultrasonic and other advanced testing technologies, the degradation, wear, and corrosion processes under environmental stress can be more thoroughly and rapidly assessed. 

In-vehicle operation, sensors support predictive analytics to warn of mechanical degradation and potential failure. Together with ultrasonic testing to detect cracks and other wear, they are providing a new level of preventive maintenance.

Composite materials are comprising a greater percentage of vehicles. Boeing's new long wings are made of carbon fiber technology. But there is a clear trend towards vehicle makers like Tesla and BMW adding more carbon fiber parts to luxury cars. Lowering the cost and time of testing and prototyping composite materials will accelerate the use of these materials with improved fuel economy and lower carbon footprints.