Research highlight

Engineering: Supercomputer-based structural design takes wing


October 5, 2017

A supercomputer-based tool that can optimize the internal structure of a full-scale aeroplane wing with unprecedented level of detail is described in Nature this week.

In engineering, a technique called computational morphogenesis is used to determine the best possible shapes and material distributions to achieve specific objectives, such as maximizing performance or minimizing weight or cost. Within this field, topology optimization involves redistributing material within a predetermined design domain, not unlike natural bone-growth processes. Traditional topology optimization is used routinely in the automotive and aerospace industries, among others. However, owing to the limited resolution of the approach, its use is restricted to the design of components and simple structures.

Niels Aage and colleagues developed a supercomputer-based morphogenesis tool that produces designs with giga-voxel resolution, involving more than one billion voxels (three-dimensional equivalents of pixels). This resolution is far greater than that of currently available methods - which have design resolutions of about five million voxels - and thus enables better material distribution. To demonstrate the tool, the authors applied it to the design of the load-carrying internal structure of an aeroplane wing. They show that the optimized design would yield a weight saving of 2 to 5 per cent compared to current wing designs, corresponding to 200 to 500 kilograms per wing. Converting this weight reduction into fuel savings suggests a potential saving of 40 to 200 tonnes of fuel per year per aeroplane. The authors caution that the fabrication of this design is currently not feasible but hope that it will inspire future design approaches for a range of structures, including wind turbine blades, tower masts and bridges.

doi: 10.1038/nature23911

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