Largest composite aircraft structure optimised with smart software

Louise Smyth

When the Stratolaunch aircraft rolled out of the Mojave, California Air and Space Port hangar last spring in preparation for ground testing, it was a clear example of how far the design and manufacturing of composite materials have progressed in recent years. Later in the year, the first phase of engine testing on the aircraft’s six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines was completed.

The world’s largest aircraft by wingspan (wider than a football field is long) is almost entirely fabricated from composite materials, which provide light weight, high stiffness and strength characteristics that are increasingly in demand in aerospace, automotive, sports, medical and industrial fields.

The has two fuselages connected by a giant single wing and is powered by six engines that will enable it to take off from a runway carrying a payload of up to 550,000lbs. At the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner, the Stratolaunch air-launch platform will release the space launch vehicle payload and return to the airport for reuse. The first launch demonstration is anticipated to take place as early as 2019.

Collier Research’s HyperSizer optimisation software was used extensively by manufacturer Scaled Composites to optimise the aircraft’s composite fuselage and wing structure. The software automatically performs design, stress analysis and sizing optimisation, typically reducing the weight of structures by 20-40%.

For the massive Stratolaunch wing, deflection limits were a key factor to be taken into account. The panels of the dual fuselages were sized for strength, stability and honeycomb sandwich failure modes. By using HyperSizer, the stress team had access to a comprehensive set of automated failure analyses that includes rapid free-body analysis, discrete laminate sizing, ply-based composite failure analysis, honeycomb sandwich analysis methods such as wrinkling, core shear, flatwise tension and intracell dimpling, and scripting API to push in loads from Excel spreadsheets.

Influence on Design

Collier Research president, Craig Colllier, is seeing continuing evolution in the integration of the toolsets used for composites design and manufacturing. “HyperSizer software can provide insight into how producible a structure is and whether there might be any manufacturing issues,” says Collier. “It can incorporate laminate fabrication preferences in early-stage design thought; ease-of-manufacturing is becoming a major influence with strength design of laminate structures."

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