Aircraft are large and complex vehicles, and the fact that they can perform so optimally and safely while traversing the globe by air is a testament to their engineering. The various capabilities of aircraft are made possible through very careful design processes, those of which serve to balance numerous competing and demanding requirements to ensure that an aircraft meets all objectives related to strength, weight, cost, and more. While the design process of an airplane or helicopter may vary by type or model, we will discuss the basic process that most aircraft follow for your better understanding.
Regardless of the type of aircraft you are designing, the first step always begins with determining the intended purpose of the vehicle. Whether it will carry passengers, dominate the skies, or carry out surveillance, the purpose of an aircraft will greatly change how the rest of the design process is carried out. Beyond the intended purpose, other initial factors that will need to be accounted for include those related to aircraft regulations, environmental concerns, finances, safety, and more. With such ideas in place, aircraft designers can then approach the initial design with a rough-out that considers all design constraints that have been narrowed down.
As early design processes had to be carried out using analytical theory and ample experimentation, they required a high amount of labor and time to conduct. Since the invention and modernization of the computer, aircraft design processes have been highly automated for the benefit of engineers. As programming, graphics, and other such technology has also improved over time, engineers now have the benefit of visuals, software for experimentation, and user-friendly environments for ease-of-use.
For the main aspects of design, engineers will tackle aerodynamics, propulsion, controls, mass, and structure. For structures such as the wings, aircraft manufacturer designs will focus on how the lift necessary for flight can be achieved, and wing geometry will be altered as required to balance stalling speeds, load bearing capabilities, and more. Generally, wing designs will vary in terms of their aspect ratio, taper ratio, sweepback angle, thickness ratio, washout, section profile, and dihedral. Additionally, varying materials may also be used to manufacture the wing ribs and other structures.
When it comes to the aspect of propulsion, engineers will balance engine design parameters such as fuel consumption, available engine thrust, engine mass, and engine geometry. During cruise speed, thrust and drag will need to be balanced with one another, while acceleration is possible when thrust surpasses drag. As aircraft like the Airbus A380 and other commercial aircraft primarily travel at cruise speed, they are designed with efficiency in mind. Meanwhile, fighter jets will have their thrust capabilities prioritized as acceleration is paramount.
Aside from such structures, other important areas that designers put ample focus into include the landing gear, any assembly that will affect weight, and the overall structure of the vehicle. While any aircraft structure is made with strength, durability, and stability at the forefront, corrosion resistance, ease of manufacturing, aeroelasticity, and other such qualities are also important. For integrity, all of the forces that may result from an aircraft’s environment or onboard systems will have to be considered as well.
When discussing the design process and simulation, it is important to note that there are three separate phases. The first phase is where the conceptual design is established, and it involves the sketching of various configurations that may meet all required design parameters. While potentially beginning on paper as a simple sketch, this design will finish as a finalized conceptual layout on paper or on a computer screen for review by other engineers and designers.
The next design phase is the preliminary phase, and this is where the concept design is tweaked as necessary to further meet design parameters. To do this, wind tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamic calculations are carried out alongside structural and control analysis. Through various corrections and decisions, the final design can be established before having the go ahead from a manufacturer or designer. After this, the final stage is carried out, that of which is known as the detail design phase. During this process, the fabrication aspect of the aircraft will be tackled, meaning that things like rib quantities, spar locations, and other structural decisions will be made. While these three design phases are important to consider, one should also take note of any potential delays when it comes to scheduling.
As the final step of the design process, engineers may carry out program development to improve performance or economical gains. Generally, this is done by stretching the fuselage, increasing the MTOW, or making other such changes that improve the overall performance or fuel-economy of an aircraft without detracting from other aspects. With this basic overview of the aircraft design process, you can better understand how such vehicles are made.
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