A team of students and polymer scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi received a portion of a $5.7 million NASA grant to enhance the speed of aircraft production.
James Rawlins, a professor in the School of Polymer Science and Engineering at USM, said each grant has multiple universities involved. USM is part of a team with the University of South Carolina, Boise State University, Benedict College, and multiple industry partners, Rawlins said.
“The funding for Southern Miss specifically —which is really unique in our field — is for four years of performance simultaneously,” Rawlins said. “We will have incremental parts of what ends up being $2.6 million over the course of four years.”
The mission of the grant is to expedite the rate to produce thermoplastic aerospace parts. Currently, airplanes are put together with rivets and fasteners, which takes a lot of time and costs more, Rawlins said.’
“We are trying to develop technology platforms that would allow each of the parts to be assembled in a rapid manner much like the automotive industry,” Rawlins said. “My colleague, Dr. Jeff Wiggins and I are going to work on assembling uni-directional tape.”
The USM team will develop tape and send it to the University of South Carolina’s team to assemble and weld parts with the tape, Rawlins said. Boise State’s team will use modeling to see where these parts are practical.
The ability to weld thermoplastic could make aircraft construction more cost-effective and faster, he said.
“Thermoplastics have the advantage that they can not only be shaped rapidly if you get the thermal conditions right, but they are also extremely tough, which means the robustness of the design goes up — the durability,” Rawlins said. “You can also weld them.”
The grant is funded through NASA’s University Initiative Leadership program, which funds research for different areas of technology to enhance the aerospace industry.