Developing Design Tools for Outer Space Structures

Liang Zhang of AnalySwift (left) and Wenbin Yu of Purdue’s College of Engineering stand in front of large-scale additive manufacturing equipment in Purdue’s Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center.

Achieving affordable space exploration will require lightweight structures for vehicles, solar arrays and antennas. Lightweight materials also will be used for components of structures like pressurized habitats, cryogenic tanks, landing gears and truss cages.

The problem is that NASA envisions that many of those structures will be made from tailorable composite materials, but no design tool has been able to fully exploit the materials’ full potential. AnalySwift LLC, a Purdue University-affiliated commercial software provider, and Wenbin Yu, a professor in Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, are conducting research to create one. Yu is the principal investigator. Liang Zhang of AnalySwift and Xin Liu of the University of Texas at Arlington are co-investigators.

Allan Wood, AnalySwift president and CEO, said that existing design tools were developed for traditional composites, which have straight fibers. If an open area is needed inside a traditional composite structure, this is often accomplished by creating a cut-out after it is manufactured, which can compromise the integrity of the structure.

“Tailorable composites, also known as tow-steered or variable thickness composites, however, can be highly customized thanks to improvements in manufacturing,” he said. “New robotic techniques can weave fibers around areas intended for openings, expanding design options while improving the structures’ overall properties.”

AnalySwift has received a one-year, $125,000 Phase I STTR contract from NASA for a project titled “An Efficient, High-Fidelity Design Tool for Advanced Tailorable Composites.”

Yu said the project will benefit NASA and related agencies and industries by exploiting the potential of tailorable composites for designing better lightweight structures.

“The resulting efficient, high-fidelity design tool developed in this project will shorten the design and analysis period of structures made of tailorable composites,” Yu said.

Wood said the design tool will have applications on Earth as well as in space, including aerospace, energy and wind, automotive, marine and other industries.

“The tool could also lead to improved designs for high-performance, tailorable structures like prosthetics, electronics and sporting goods with reduced design cost and time,” he said.

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