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3-D Design Software Helps New Aircraft Take Wing

Dassault Aviation was able to cut development costs by a third for its long-range business jet.

October 29, 2005|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

SAINT-CLOUD, France — In a dark auditorium resembling a movie theater, engineers for Dassault Aviation are busy designing airplanes while wearing 3-D glasses.

They use computer joysticks to manipulate eye-popping three-dimensional images of a "virtual" aircraft on a 10-foot-tall screen, making the plane rotate, flip and shed its skin to reveal the parts inside. The image, similar to holography, appears to jump off the screen as if a real aircraft were in the auditorium.

Designing planes or cars with computers isn't new, but the French aerospace firm's newest software goes beyond just parts design: For Dassault's new Falcon 7X business jet, its engineers also used the 3-D program to create the machine tools that are used to fashion the parts, and to lay out the floor plan for the factory where the plane is built.

Designers also used "virtual" ground crews to anticipate how the aircraft would be serviced once it began flying. This helped reduce maintenance costs.

"We've reached a level in which you can see the future before it happens," said Marcelo Lemos, president of Dassault Systemes of America in Woodland Hills. About 200 engineers at the U.S. unit helped develop the software.

As a result, the first Falcon 7X was assembled in seven months, compared with 16 months for previous business jets, because there was no need to build a mock-up or a test aircraft.

Overall development costs have been cut by a third to about $300 million, and Dassault has promised customers that the Falcon 7X will be about 20% less expensive to operate than current business jets, partly because of lower maintenance costs.

Dassault has more than 60 orders for the three-engine, $40-million jet, which can carry eight passengers and three crew members. The Falcon 7X, which has received rave reviews for its cutting-edge design, is undergoing flight certification. The first order is expected to be delivered next year.

"This is the way airplanes will be built in the future," Lemos said.

Boeing Co. bought the Dassault software and is using it to develop its 787, a 250-passenger jetliner that is expected to enter service in 2008.

Boeing has promised airlines that have ordered 787s that it will burn 20% less fuel and cost about 10% less to operate because it will be made of lightweight composite materials and have new features developed using the 3-D software. To complete the project, Boeing has set up a "virtual reality" laboratory in Everett, Wash., where engineers go over a digital mock-up of the 787 on large screens.

Dassault, best known for its Rafale and Mirage military jets, diversified into business jets in the 1960s.

The company is majority owned by the namesake family and is now the fourth-largest business jet maker, behind Gulfstream, Bombardier and Cessna, according to Teal Group, an aerospace research firm.

Dassault first used computer-aided design on its Rafael aircraft in the 1980s. Its Woodland Hills operation developed computer software for Northrop Grumman Corp. to design ships for the Navy.

Dassault has spun off the software operation from its aerospace company, but the two businesses continue to work closely together. Dassault's software was selected in the 1990s by Boeing to design its mid-size 777 aircraft. And various Dassault software programs have been used by Lockheed Martin Corp., Bell Helicopters and Bombardier.

The Dassault engineering team continues to modernize the 3-D software, and the most updated version was used on the Falcon 7X.

At Dassault's laboratory, just west of Paris, engineers don 3-D glasses and "walk through" the aircraft's design. Their ability to see the aircraft and all its parts helped engineers figure out the best way to route wires, install pipes and fit components.

The 3-D digital blueprints were so accurate that Dassault found fewer than 100 problems when it built the actual aircraft, which contains 50,000 parts, 300,000 fasteners and 15 miles of wiring.

These problems included a component not fitting precisely and a wire that was improperly positioned by a millimeter -- a far cry from the 3,000 anomalies that Dassault encountered when it built a previous business jet.

Since virtually all of the tweaking had been done in the digitized version, Dassault Aviation executives contend that the 100th Falcon 7X jet will be nearly identical to the first one.

With a range of about 6,500 miles, the Falcon 7X will be one of the world's longest-range business jets with the capability of flying nonstop from Los Angeles to Paris.

John Rosanvallon, president of Dassault Falcon Jet in Teterboro, N.J., and the man responsible for selling the new jet, said the 3-D design gave it a competitive edge at a time when demand for business jets was rising. Merrill Lynch estimates eight to 10 quarters of continued growth in business jet deliveries, with demand peaking in 2007 or 2008, when Dassault expects the Falcon 7X to reach its full production rate of 30 planes a year.

"The momentum for the biz jet market is very good," Rosanvallon said.

Richard Aboulafia, Teal's aerospace analyst, believes that the Falcon 7X will help Dassault gain market share, which is expected to rise from 16.7% to nearly 19%.

"They've led the way in new industrial concepts, and that could help them in the long term," he said. "The 7X could be the path breaker."

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