NASA Grant to Help Southern Miss Team Redefine Aircraft Production Process

November 6, 2020


A recent $5.7 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is making it possible for a team of students and polymer scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi to help redefine the manufacturing and simulation processes used in aircraft production.

The four-year grant, which came from NASA’s University Leadership Initiative, will allow the university’s School of Polymer Science and Engineering to partner with the University of South Carolina, Boise State University, Benedict College and other industry partners. Together, the teams will work with an “atom-to-airframe-to-spaceframe” approach designed to make urban air mobility possible by drastically increasing the production rate of aircraft.

“(The grant) is phenomenally important; it’s part of a bunch of other project-level things that have now led to bring together equipment that lets us put the whole technology package together,” polymer science instructor James Rawlins said. “My colleague, Dr. Jeff Wiggins, and I have worked together off and on for the last 15 years, but we’ve worked consistently toward this moment in time.

“This is the underpinnings of the next generation of composite materials that would be thermal plastic.”

Ranging from drone delivery services to air metro services to air taxis, urban air mobility refers to in-air transportation within urban areas. It is expected to be a commercially viable market by 2030; however, this will require aircraft to be built in much higher quantities and frequencies than are currently being produced.

Along with Boise State, Southern Miss will begin the research using experimental and simulation techniques to strengthen and increase durability in the thermoplastic tape currently used to build aircraft. The Southern Miss team will advance and develop carbon-fiber reinforced composites to be used as the material of choice for the manufacturing of those vehicles.

The thermoplastic tape will then be passed to South Carolina’s team, which will use advanced manufacturing processes such as automated fiber placement and automated tape layup to build aircraft parts at a higher production rate. The South Carolina team will then use thermoplastic welding, instead of nuts and bolts, to fusion bond the parts together.

“This is a big deal,” Rawlins said. “This puts us in the technological driver’s seat for the next generation of composite materials for almost all the aerospace and automotive world, including sports and recreation-type materials.

“There’s an exponential increase in the cost of each new airframe, as we move from (different models of) airplanes. This particular project is a piece that’s designed to sidestep that exponential increase and get the cost back in line with how the automotive industry has allowed itself to create future generations of cars that are not only better, but more economical.”

Currently, high-selling aircraft like the Boeing MAX and the Airbus A321 can be produced at a rate of 60 to 70 aircraft each month, or two to three aircraft per day. The university teams predict that urban air transport will ultimately require 100 aircraft to be produced a day.

“The question is how do we rapidly advance these materials and manufacture those materials in volumes that are going to support these types of assemblies and these types of production environments, both economically and in high quality,” Wiggins said. “That’s what USM is bringing in the development side of it.”

USM’s research team includes Ph.D. students Witold Fuchs, Jared Bates, Bernie Barea-Lopez, Scott Murphy, Rebecca Haber, Chris Croshaw, Aynslie Fritz, Tyler Richardson, Lina Ghanbari, Will Guzman and Levi Hamernik.

“It has potential to have six to 10 Ph.D. candidates and somewhere between six and 20 undergraduate researchers,” Rawlins said. “We could have as many as five full-time staff scientists that are salaried employees at the university.

“Jeff has spent the last 15 years putting things in place for this to be possible. I think it’s important to think about the evolution of this – if we hadn’t put a bunch of equipment, a lot of people and a lot of technologies into practice, this wouldn’t be possible. We could talk about the project, but we couldn’t deliver it.”