They look like flying fortresses in the sky. They are huge, have intricate electrical and electronic systems and they have captivated us for decades. But do you know how much does aeroplanes weigh? A Boeing 747 weighs as much as 183,500 kg!

Just imagine the amount of ingenuity it takes for a team of engineers, craftsmen and support staff to put together tons of Aluminium, plastic, glass and electronics so as to build a huge machine that would ultimately fly!

The size of the industry

With a trillion dollars in sales revenue in the United States only, the Aerospace and Defence (A&D) industry is responsible for the design, advancement, and manufacture of aircraft, space systems, and defense utilities. This industry has always been in the forefront of research and development and has generated spin-offs which have laid the foundation for telecommunication, modern computers and many other modern-day inventions.

Since the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, the aerospace industry has become a behemoth in terms of the value of the output it generates. More importantly, this industry has had a socio-political impact all over the world. Generations have aspired to be a part of this ‘movement’, new schools of industrial design have come up and the globe, at large, has shrunk because of air travel.

Software and the art of building

Imagine putting 183,500 kg of material together and then failing to make an aeroplane? Wouldn’t it be a huge waste of resources, time and most importantly, money?

It is here that CAD plays a huge role. One of the earliest adopters of digital technologies, the Aerospace and Defence industry depends on CAD from the design phase until the deployment and beyond. CAD platforms ensure that multiple prototypes need not be produced for testing, thus saving an immense amount of resources. These platforms also help in speeding up the product design cycle and increases operational efficiency, reducing production cost in the process.

The latest enhancements have come in the form of 4D CAD solutions which greatly help the execution strategies and operational performance of the final renders. To understand this better, software today is able to predict how a propeller (or any other machine part) will behave with time, thus saving the company the trouble of actually making the part and testing it in real situations!

 

What are the generic steps for using a CAD software?

Conventionally, the production cycle starts with a conceptual design, which shows how the final prototype may look like. A preliminary design phase follows afterwards wherein the designers give shape to the major subsystems. In almost all scenarios, several changes need to be made till the final design is achieved. There are times when design engineers cannot anticipate the different production issues and this leads to major rework. In spite of the apparent simplicity of the initial conceptual design phase, as much as 80 percent of the aerospace product’s cost is determined in this stage.

 

A list of CAD software applications for the aerospace and defense industry

Catia by Dassault Systèmes

Catia is one of the most widely used applications in the aerospace and defense industry. Some of its notable clients include government contractors in the US, like Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin. An all-weather application, Catia can be used for everything from prototyping to digital analysis to simulation. It allows for real-time concurrent design and collaboration across all stakeholders.

SolidWorks by Dassault Systèmes

SolidWorks by Dassault Systèmes is a high-end CAD software application, which was first released in 1995. SolidWorks utilizes a parametric feature-based approach and empowers designers and engineers with an integrated suite of tools that helps them get the job done faster and better. It was designed for the Windows operating system and competes with PTC Creo, Solid Edge, and Autodesk Inventor

 NX by Siemens PLM Software

NX by Siemens has been around for a long time and several global manufacturers, like GE Aviation, are its loyal users. This high end software has several built in tools for documentation and drafting.

Solid Edge by Siemens PLM Software

Solis edge is a powerful CAD suite – it allows for from mechanical and electrical design to simulation, manufacturing, technical publications, data management, and beyond.

Creo by PTC

Creo, earlier known as Pro/ENGINEER is a parametric, integrated 3D CAD/CAM/CAE solution. Created by Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), this powerful software platform is used by several organisations including Lockheed Martin. Be it advanced modelling and design or simulation and analysis, Creo is often the go to choice for organisations. It is also capable of smart connected design, additive manufacturing, and model-based definition.

Inventor by Autodesk

Inventor is a powerful CAD platform that allows 2D and 3D data integration in a single environment, creating a virtual representation of the final product. Without even starting the production process (and therefore having a product!), Inventor enables users to validate the form, fit, and function of the product.

OpenVSP (Vehicle Sketch Pad) by NASA

OpenVSP has been maintained by a group of developers after NASA released it as an open source project under the NASA Open Source Agreement (NOSA) on January 10, 2012. OpenVSP is a parametric geometry tool that can create a 3D design of an aircraft according to engineering parameters. 

Notable software platforms from other vendors include ADS (Aircraft Design Software) by Optimal Aircraft Design, TurboCAD by IMSI and SharkCAD Pro by Punch!CAD.

 

What are the main features that an aerospace/defense firm looks for in a CAD tool?

The most important capability of a CAD platform is its capability to create 2D/ 3D objects with the help of tools such as extrude, cut, and revolve. CAD applications used in the Aerospace and Defence industry are parametric, which means that designers can change the calibration of the objects according to the specifications.

Apart from creating the prototypes, the CAD platforms should help the designers to simulate and verify the assembly of different parts, test the functioning of the electrical system and help with the manufacturing of the fluid systems. Most importantly, a CAD software helps in ironing out flaws and helps the perfection of the prototype till the last possible moment. 

When an iteration can cost millions of dollars, a minute miscalculation of less than one-tenth of a millimeter can cause a catastrophic accident, it is indeed prudent to have a perfect design ready in the first place. 

Out of a lot of factors, two parameters mainly help organisations select the CAD platform that they are going to use. Cost being the obvious first, organisations also look at the acceptability of the CAD platform across the industry before considering it. It is prudent to go with the more widely used applications as developers are more frequently available for these platforms. An aeroplane or a missile system is a huge piece of engineering and some of the parts required may be procured from third party vendors and producers. It is indeed helpful if the vendors also use the same CAD platform, so that compatibility is maintained.

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