January 19, 2015
Boeing, UW open research lab on Seattle campus
Boeing engineers and scientists have brought their projects to the University of Washington, opening a new research center on campus that will initially focus on advanced assembly and manufacturing technologies.
The Boeing Advanced Research Center, located in the Department of Mechanical Engineering on the UW campus, will let students and faculty members work collaboratively with Boeing engineers on aircraft and spacecraft assembly and manufacturing. Four initial projects are underway at the UW, led by Boeing-employed affiliate instructors and UW engineering professors.
Boeing and the UW have a history of working together through teaching and research projects, but this is by far the closest the two have worked together, said Per Reinhall, UW professor and chair of mechanical engineering and the center’s director.
“Having Boeing engineers here in the same physical space working with students and faculty is very exciting,” Reinhall said. “We get to have some of the most significant airplane manufacturing and design issues come through this lab. It supports an exciting new trend in education where students learn by doing, along with close interaction with industry.”
Leaders from the UW and Boeing formally launched the center with speakers and a tour of the facility Monday. Gov. Jay Inslee, UW President Michael K. Young and Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner were among those who attended and spoke.
“Both the University of Washington and The Boeing Company are tremendous drivers of innovation in Washington,” Inslee said. “Partnerships, like that being announced today through the formation of the Boeing Advanced Research Center, will ensure our students have the skills needed to compete and win in the future. I am excited to watch the next generation of aerospace leaders take flight here in Washington state.”
Under the initial two-year contract, Boeing will fund four projects that focus on automation, robotics, and aircraft assembly. The plan is to seek more funding to continue the center indefinitely and bring on more projects.
“We’re pleased to strengthen our long-standing partnership with the University of Washington and look forward to working side by side with students and faculty on the cutting-edge challenges of our industry,” Conner said. “It’s another example of how our investments in the Puget Sound are a win-win for the region and Boeing. When our community is strong, we are strong.”
The center is the brainchild of Jim Buttrick, a Boeing engineer and the center’s associate director, and UW professors Reinhall and Joseph Garbini. Buttrick received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the UW three decades ago. Several of his faculty collaborators were his professors then, and after many years of working in industry, Buttrick saw a good opportunity for students to gain practical experience and Boeing to benefit from more researchers on projects.
Buttrick, colleagues from Boeing and UW faculty members brainstormed over coffee and many meetings, drawing up plans for the center during the past 18 months. Up to eight Boeing engineers will keep their full-time positions in the company and move to the UW lab space in the Mechanical Engineering Building as affiliate instructors. Eight graduate students and six faculty members will also join the research center team.
Each project involves making airplane assembly and manufacturing more efficient, automated and streamlined, and is important to Boeing’s product development. Actual airplane parts as well as smaller replicas will live in the UW lab space as the projects develop.
“We strategically chose projects where we want to solve a problem, but we see there are areas where we can employ academic talent to work on portions of a project and come up with viable solutions,” Buttrick said. “It will give us a fresh perspective and enhance our ability to innovate.”
One project is designed to make it easier for mechanics to build the insides of airplane wings – shallow, narrow spaces where it is physically hard to work. Little robots or remotely operated vehicles could be programmed to go inside these small spaces and place nuts on bolts, seal seams and inspect the inside of the wing to make sure extra debris is removed. A creative solution to this challenging job could improve quality and consistency on each airplane model, Buttrick said.
Other projects include automating the riveting of fuselages and predicting the final, full-sized shape of certain aircraft structures.
The center’s leaders plan to grow the number of projects housed at the UW and involve more students and faculty members from across campus, particularly in composites research.
“This center, which will aptly and fondly be called the ‘BARC,’ represents another example of the amazing synergy between Boeing and UW Engineering,” said Dean Michael B. Bragg. “For almost 100 years we have worked together in ways that benefit the company, our students and the region’s economy. The student experience within the BARC is unparalleled and will provide outstanding preparation for real-world, hands-on jobs.”