The New Golden Age of Small-Quantity, High-Quality Aircraft Parts Production: Breaking It Down Into Contributing Elements

Third in a Series of Articles

by Ed Leineweber
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2019 Issue

By now, regular Midwest Flyer Magazine readers are probably familiar with my fascination with an emerging design, prototyping and production phenomenon I have dubbed “the New Golden Age of Small-Quantity, High-Quality Aircraft Parts Production,” which, I maintain, is bringing dramatic and beneficial changes to our aviation world. These developments will enable us homebuilders to make some of our own parts at home, enable small shops to keep vintage aircraft flying, and kit companies rolling out affordable, state-of-the art personal aircraft, among other opportunities.

I explored this phenomenon initially in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine with  an article on Tromblay Tool LLC, a small company which I see as exemplifying certain aspects of this New Golden Age. I then followed up in the June/July 2019 issue with an introductory discussion of the phenomenon itself by interviewing Adam Morrison of Streamline Designs, an engineering firm fully engaged in advancing this New Golden Age. What follows is the first foray into a deeper exploration of the confluence of factors itemized in Adam’s interview.

Affordable, Easy-To-Use CAD & CNC Machines

The obvious place to start is the revolutionary advancement of two complementary technologies: Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software and Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines. CAD software began by simply moving the two-dimensional drawing process from the drafting table to the computer, but by the late 1980s, it had blossomed into depicting three-dimensional (3D) images. This early 3D software was expensive and required extensive training and a high degree of skill to use it effectively. As such, it was far beyond the reach of all but the largest engineering firms and production facilities.

The last 20 years, however, have seen rapid development of CAD systems and their widespread use, bringing prices down dramatically and skill levels required for productive use well within the range of small shops, fabricators and even homebuilders. Many companies even provide free online or down-loadable versions of their software with capabilities sufficient to revolutionize the simplest design, prototyping and fabrication project.

Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines are capable of working with minimal human operator  involvement as they follow a complex computer- directed set of instructions enabling the machines to follow a prescribed tool path, creating complex shapes in a variety of materials through turning, milling, grinding and other operations that are fully automated and extremely precise.

When they first came on the scene, use of such machines was limited to high-end players due to their large size, installation requirements, such as three-phase electrical power and massive foundations to accommodate their substantial weight. No surprise that these early CNC machines were also very expensive.

In recent years, however, CNC machines have seen a similar trajectory as CAD systems with sophisticated development, lower cost and simplified user interfaces, have made the technology more accessible to less well-healed players. Additionally, much smaller CNC machines are available today at prices about one-tenth of those of years ago and can be powered by nothing more than 120-volt house current. While such smaller lighter-duty machines cannot work at high speeds 24 hours a day, they can be equally capable of turning out complex, high-quality parts from even hard-to-machine materials, although in smaller quantities. Finally, it should be noted that CNC machines today can work a wide variety of materials, including wood and plastic, and can conduct many operations not usually associated with old-style machining, such as routing, waterjet cutting and welding, all without hands-on operator control.

A discussion of these two revolutionary technologies should also include brief mention of a related, but more recently popularized development: 3D printing. This technology, often referred to as an example of  “additive manufacturing” in that it builds up parts through adding material to the emerging part, rather than removing it as in traditional machining operations, has been around since the 1980s, but was generally unavailable to a wider user population due to its complexity in programing, large size units and substantial required investment. Nowadays, however, these units can be readily purchased from many sources at prices starting at a few hundred dollars and set up on any workbench or kitchen counter and plugged into house current. Equally important to the expanding use of 3D printing technology is the readily available free or inexpensive CAD software that allows simple programming inputs to generate the obscure, but ubiquitous, G Code necessary to run nearly every CNC machine ever produced.

Much More To Come!

There can be little doubt that technological advancements like CAD software and CNC machines alone have revolutionized small aircraft construction and maintenance, but these better-known elements are only the tip of the massive iceberg that is fostering this New Golden Age. In coming articles, we will continue to explore the many other lesser known factors outlined in the earlier articles.

These are some of the developments whose confluence is creating the New Golden Age of Small-Quantity, High-Quality Aircraft Parts Production discussed in this series of articles:
• Affordable, easy-to-use Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software tools.
• Newer, more easily programed Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines.
• Connected and networked factories.
• Associated reductions in labor inputs and price.
• Specialization culture versus mass production.
• Rapid prototyping and on-demand production capabilities.
• Reduced cost of machines with good capability.
• Open-source tools and methods.
• Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding access to start-up capital.
• Agile product management making its way into hardware production.
• Emergence of additive versus subtractive manufacturing.
• The availability of on-demand services and the gig economy.
• The expanding use of industry consensus standards as a means of accelerating the pace of new product certification.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed Leineweber is licensed to practice law in Wisconsin. Now, mostly retired from the legal profession, including 20 years as a circuit court judge, Ed focuses his limited practice in Aviation Law and Alternative Dispute Resolution, including Mediation. As a pilot for nearly 40 years, aircraft owner, Certified Flight Instructor, licensed aviation maintenance technician, former fixed base operator, airport manager, and FAA Safety Team member, Ed is experienced in most aspects of general aviation. When not practicing law, he enjoys working in his shop at the airport on aircraft restorations and on his aircraft kit company, and spending time with family and friends.

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