Aero engineers on cloud nine

A nine-man outfit in Cyberjaya is helping Airbus keep its planes safe in the air.

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LOOK AT THAT : Naguib pointing out a section of a plane as rendered by a computer. Analytical testing involving computer-modelling systems complement the physical checks on high-stress parts of a plane like the wings and the undercarriage, he said.

PEOPLE hop on planes, zoom off to their destinations, and hop off. We hardly give a thought to how much work goes into making our flight time as uneventful as possible.

There are seemingly a gazillion controls and systems that need to function as they are intended to in an aircraft to keep it flying.

Two parts of a plane that are constantly being stressed are the wings and landing gear.

Wings are not the rigid ­extremities that most imagine them to be — next time you fly, note how they flex and vibrate in the air as the aircraft manoeuvres.

As for the undercarriage, the wheels and struts have to stand up to a lot of impacts each and every time a plane makes a landing.

Engineers make regular checks to ensure that these parts are not on the verge of failing. To help them, there are physical and computer-aided tests. Even then, this is no small feat.

Wing sections are bent until they break to see how much stress they can bear while landing gears are dropped again and again to gauge how they will perform in extreme landing conditions.

Whilst all this is being done in the hangars of aeroplane manufacturers in Europe and the United States, there is a complementary analytical testing process that is carried out involving computer-modelling systems by hundreds of engineers as the aircraft is being designed.

These engineers can be ­thousands of miles away from where the aircraft being tested are — in ­another country, in another city — and now, in Cyberjaya here.

This is where Strand Aerospace Malaysia Sdn Bhd does its computer-aided stress testing for Airbus — the second largest aircraft manufacturing company in the world. Boeing is the largest.

“We do structural analysis for various aircraft … very much like what a civil engineer does for a building,” said Naguib Nor, chief operating officer at Strand Aerospace.

“We get the prototype’s design and specifications (from the manufacturer) which we program into our computer system for ­simulating stress environments,” said the 33-year-old engineer.

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ALL ABOUT TEAMWORK : Naguib speaking to aero stress design engineer Sim Tze Chiang at their Cyberjaya office.

Done in parts

There are three stages in the design of aeroplane parts, Naguib explained.

“There’s the general concept design on paper, the detailed prototype design, and finally the certification stage which is where we come in.

“The whole certification process can take up to 10 years,” he said. “For example, our analysis of the A380’s main wing beams took three years to complete.”

The certification phase takes a long time because it involves scrutinising every detail of the aircrafts’ structure before it is deemed ready for commercial use.

During this process, computer-aided testing is imperative because as thorough and detailed as the earlier design stages of the ­prototype are, mistakes can still be commonplace.

“For instance, engineers in the initial design phase may have miscalculated the load capacity of a particular component in flight,” said Naguib.

Such an error can be identified and rectified with computer-aided analysis. “We would then notify the prototype testers who can make a physical design ­modification to the structure,” according to him.

The experts at Strand Aerospace also have to comb for manufacturing mistakes.

“If a factory worker has not drilled out a hole properly on a prototype aircraft wing, it could cause a problem later,” said Naguib.

“We have to look out for even such miniscule errors and if we find one, we will flag the ­manufacturer of the part and recommend how the mistake can be rectified.”

Such analysis is a computer-aided task. The software tools that Strand Aerospace uses are MathCAD and Excel. It also employs specialised software, such as MSC Nastran/Patran (from MSC Software Corp in California) for modelling and analysis of aircraft parts.

British connection

Where did it all begin for this Malaysian company? How did it bag Airbus as a client in an ultra high-tech industry? It started in Britain, said Naguib.

When he was in his late 20s, Naguib was already the general manager of a company, called Stress Analysis and Design Engineering Ltd, in that country. He has already worked there for two years and Airbus was a client.

Three years later, he decided to form a mirror company to take advantage of the lower labour costs in Malaysia. That’s how the three-year-old Strand Aerospace was formed.

It partnered with Stress Analysis and Design Engineering to do ­structural analysis of aircraft components for certification by the Civil Aviation Authority — an ­international body.

“The setting up of the Malaysian company allowed for a technology transfer as its junior engineers were coached over the Internet by senior British engineers,” said Naguib.

“We would input the design of a wing, for example, into the computer system and then collaborate with our British partners over the Web using Microsoft’s NetMeeting videoconferencing solution.”

With this type of technology transfer, the small, nine-man company in Cyberjaya is beginning to make its own inroads into a highly competitive industry.

“Initially, we partnered with Stress Analysis and Design Engineering to tender for Airbus jobs because the British company has a long-standing relationship with the aircraft manufacturer,” he said.

However, Strand Aerospace is beginning to stand on its own feet and does not want to solely rely on its British counterpart.

“We now tender and get jobs from Malaysian company Composite Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM) Sdn Bhd which is a contract manufacturer for ­several engine and wing panel components for Airbus.” CTRM has a 300,000sq ft facility in Batu Berendam, Malacca.

“When we started, most of our business came directly from Airbus. Today, 30% of our business comes from local players like CTRM.

“We are also providing support to the Royal Malaysian Air Force,” Naguib said, but declined to ­elaborate on the type of jobs that his company does for the RMAF.

Naguib is working to increase the jobs that Strand Aerospace gets from local companies to 50% over the next few years.

“It is looking good so far,” he said, happily. “As the engineering ­capabilities of the local contract manufacturers improve, Malaysia will move fast up the value chain in this area of expertise.”

It’s clear blue skies for us, he added.

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