Being married to an engineer has opened my mind to a whole new world. People have often speculated where aviation seems to be going and spoken praises for the engineers who have built modern aviation and contributed to the technology boom, but outside of the circle of engineers and tech people, little thought is given to the tools that fuel modern engineering innovation. It’s interesting that above my husband’s desk, hanging on the wall next to his computer monitor is a framed original 1929 engineering drawing of a Waco Biplane. He keeps it there as a reminder of how far we have come in the span of a lifetime while he draws the same biplane in a 3-dimensional computer aided design software called Solidworks.
Up until the late 80s most engineering drawings were made by hand.
SolidWorks is one of the most popular programs today that allows one engineer to design something in a few hours what would have taken a dedicated team of engineers and draftsmen weeks in the past. Drawing in two dimensions is simple and gets the job done, but as designs become more and more complex, two-dimensional drawings become more and more prone to error. 3D CAD, on the other hand, eliminates errors before they begin by recognizing dimensional conflicts such as over and under defining parts and can generate two-dimensional drawings in a matter of seconds. These programs dramatically boost productivity and eliminate errors, allowing engineers to design more things faster and more accurately.
Why then would anyone want to spend so much time deciphering old hand drawings and making them 3D? This is a popular one for restorers of these old airplanes, like my in-laws. There is a story well known in the Waco community of a man who set out to restore his airplane going off the original drawings. When he finished the individual pieces for four whole wings, he attempted to put it together, but the parts did not fit and he had to scrap them. So imagine finding out the airplane doesn’t fit before buying a single material! SolidWorks does that
Beginning of the right-lower wing of the Waco in 3D CAD. Adjustments already had to made to get the metal brace clips to line up properly.
With the models like the one shown above, engineers can ask the software to check for dimensions that don’t work out and other minor complications that were not thought of. Furthermore, one can ask the software how much the assembly weighs, what the properties are under specific loads and adjust for these shortcomings.
Another fascinating tool that today’s engineers are using is 3D scanning technology. There is a company called Aircorps Aviation that we met at Oshkosh 2017 that uses handheld laser scanning technology to scan aircraft parts to reverse engineer and 3D model. This is extremely useful for aircraft restoration project that deal with parts that are no longer available or difficult to find. Being able to recreate the part by seeing what other parts are around it is ingenious and will help restoration projects that may not have been possible otherwise.
The crazy thing is that with all these technological innovations, engineers are not getting dumber. They are still incredibly brilliant people, but 3D CAD helps them push the line between reality and the impossible, making today the world of tomorrow. Whatever aviation innovations may present themselves in the next few years, these tools are helping make them the most that they can possibly be.