Built continents apart, sections of T-7A Red Hawk joined in record time
Boeing has spliced together the fore and aft sections of the first Boeing-Saab T-7A Red Hawk prototype advanced jet trainer in record time. Despite the two sections being built 4,500 miles (7,200 km) apart, they were perfectly matched and joined in under 30 minutes.
The assembly of the first T-7A is a major milestone in the quest to build a replacement fleet of training jets for the US Air Force that is capable of simulating the characteristics of a fifth generation fighter plane. It's also an example of the Air Force's new eSeries approach to aircraft design.
Instead of relying on the traditional method of building models and test aircraft as the primary means of development, the eSeries approach relies more on creating digital twins and using 3D printing as a way of speeding up development and assembly by as much as 80 percent.
What is remarkable about the recent event is that it shows how far aircraft development has come. Despite the fore section being built by Boeing in St. Louis, Missouri, and the aft section by Saab in Linköping, Sweden, the two were quickly matched together in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
This is a far cry from how such assemblies went in decades past. An example of this was about 10 years ago when the British government decided to overhaul the RAF's Nimrod patrol aircraft. As part of this, the wings were removed, only to have the engineers react with horror when they found that they couldn't fit them back on.
This is because when the Nimrods were built in the 1960s, there was nothing like digital design, so each aircraft was essentially a one-off, meaning the wings were all custom jobs that were far from interchangeable. By contrast, the T-7A's digital twinning has advanced to the point where whole sections of aircraft fit almost like off-the-shelf parts.
The first T-7A prototype won't do any flying. Instead, it's been assigned to static testing to assess the engineering and help in improving the manufacturing of the next five prototypes, which will be used in ground and flight tests. When testing is complete, Boeing and Saab will roll out the first order of 351 T-7A Red Hawks for the Air Force.
"What we’re seeing in this new evolution of digitally designed, engineered and manufactured aircraft is a 50 percent improvement in overall production quality and as much as a 98 percent reduction in drilling defects," says Andrew Stark, Boeing T-7A Red Hawk production director. "It’s a new way of producing airplanes with improved quality throughout the whole journey."