Thursday, January 13, 2011

NASA Rolls Out New Technology in 3D Simulation

Article from Industrial Week 12 January 2011 by Peter Schmitt and Les Goldberg

In the past, NASA's design effort has been focussed on flight operations. As a result, very little consideration was given to manufacturing processes or human factors engineering. The argument was "If you're spending money on ground operations, you're not spending it on in-space operations."

The scenarios that resulted from this included:

* A spacecraft would be built without any thought given to how it would be transported to the launch site
* Ground operations were only developed after the spacecraft had been built and transported to the launch site
* Engineers had to develop "work-arounds" for nearly every task required to prepare the vehicle for launch, making the space shuttle very expensive to operate.

The article says that the availability of 3D digital manufacturing software to simulate operations at all stages of the operation have led to significant improvement. I think I would argue that, whilst the technology must have helped, it would have required a significant cultural change to start thinking about human factors for the whole project.

Examples of improvements that have been achieved include:

* Simulating a welding process identified that the welding head would collide with other hardware. Parts were changed during the design, avoiding problems during manufacture.
* Simulating how a person would interact with a vehicle to secure it to a barge for transport allows features to be incorporated to ensure that humans have access to, and can reach the hardware they need to perform tie-down operations.
* Simulating a two crane lifting operation allowed detailed instructions to be developed prior to the operation, validating its safety.

Introducing these tools at the outset of a program reduces manufacturing and ground operations costs, and fundamentally changes the way NASA engineers operate.

It has improved relationships between engineers at different facilities. Money saved on manufacturing and ground operations can be spent on exploration and in-flight activities.

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