Larsen Motorsports (LMS) student interns are getting hands-on experience with advanced manufacturing software that, ironically, takes their hands off of physical models—in the early stages, at least.
In 2020, industry-leading technology company Siemens donated millions of dollars’ worth of its NX software to LMS, in part for its affiliation with Florida Tech.
The industry standard in advanced manufacturing, NX utilizes digital twin technology, a concept that was originated by Dr. Michael Grieves, chief scientist of advanced manufacturing at Florida Tech.
Essentially, digital twin technology enables manufacturers to design, test, manufacture and support a product virtually, ensuring that everything is exactly as desired before physically building it in the real world.
“The digital twin technology is so important because what it allows us to do is to move work from the physical world—which is much more expensive in terms of working with atoms—to the virtual world, where it is very, very cheap to work with and continually getting cheaper,” Dr. Grieves says.
After receiving the software, LMS enlisted Northrop Grumman Corp. mentors to help interns learn, implement and experiment with it on what the Larsens know best: jet dragsters.
An airplane, a space shuttle, a jet dragster. Their routes may differ, but their inner systems—and the processes to make them—are much the same.
Students just seem to find that learning about aerodynamics, propulsion systems and energy transfer is a lot more interesting when their hard work manifests in a tangible, usable product—one that can hit 280 mph in 5.5 seconds, nonetheless.
Such is the premise on which Florida Tech’s long-standing partnership with LMS was built. So, it’s easy to see how Northrop Grumman, a local aerospace and defense technology company that engineers fighter jets, fits right in.
“I’ve always been very appreciative of Florida Tech as a university for the caliber of engineering students that we have encountered there,” says Jeff Reed ’94 MBA, corporate director of the digital transformation for engineering at Northrop Grumman. “So, I thought this was just a huge opportunity for us to partner with the university.”
While digital twin technology itself isn’t particularly new, it is unique for a small business, for whom software like NX simply isn’t in the budget, to be integrated in this level of advanced manufacturing.
“It used to be that only large businesses could afford the computing capability, software and infrastructure needed to do product development work in virtual space,” Dr. Grieves says. “That is rapidly changing because of computing capability exponential increases.”
Instead of building something new in NX, six interns, along with LMS staff and a few Northrop Grumman mentors, reverse-engineered the preexisting Generation Six Jet Dragster, using the software to tweak, test and perfect version two.
“For Siemens and Northrop Grumman, it’s a legitimate experiment to see if we can fill the gap between small business and large business in the global supply chain,” says Chris Larsen, LMS CEO and co-owner. “And for us, it’s about proving to the mom-and-pop shops—and ourselves—that this process is not a waste of manpower and time and labor, but it works.”
Serial No. 2, as they call the in-progress vehicle that uses a Northrop F-5 supersonic fighter engine, will be the world’s first jet drag-racing vehicle completely designed in a virtual environment using digital twin technology and manufactured using a blend of traditional and advanced manufacturing techniques.
To reverse engineer the current jet dragster, they first scanned the body of the existing car.
Starting with the front half, what LMS previously measured by hand in six weeks took just three hours using the scanner, which also eliminated human error.
Once the body was scanned into the system, students quickly identified and corrected minor flaws in the digital model. From there, they could individually and simultaneously work on various parts of the body, from tires to brake assemblies to ducts, designing and testing multiple versions before deciding what works best and adding it to the final full-car model.
“Doing it yourself, seeing what works, seeing what doesn’t work and kind of being a little creative with some stuff—it really helps learn the software,” says Liam Shaw, a mechanical engineering student who has been interning at LMS for one semester. “There are a bunch of ways that you can do it, and it’s really just about making sure that you get it as accurate as possible while doing it in the fewest steps possible.”
The software is so advanced, it can also be used to create digital twins of humans, down to the wrinkles in their fingers and the blood running through their veins. LMS plans to implement this feature with help from the biomedical and chemical engineering and sciences department to create virtual versions of drivers that can then be used for vehicle customization and crash safety testing.
Once all of the components are complete and added to the digital model, the full car undergoes further virtual trials, like computational fluid dynamics (CFD) testing, stress analysis and crash simulations.
Throughout the process, the Northrop Grumman mentors, who work with Siemens NX in their everyday duties, visit LMS headquarters to assist interns with everything from general engineering and design procedures to software applications.
And they remain readily available to interns for questions throughout the week.
“I can shoot them an email or they’ll hop on a Zoom,” Shaw says. “It’s super useful, super convenient. Everyone is really knowledgeable about what they’re doing.”
This is a benefit with which most newly minted engineers do not enter the workforce.
“We had to kind of figure it out ourselves,” says Nathan Hooper, a Northrop Grumman structural design engineer and LMS mentor. “But being able to sit down with somebody who has been there and has just done it helps you process hurdles a little bit easier. And I think that’s what this project really does for a lot of students. At least that’s the objective, and I believe it’s working.”
When virtual testing is complete and design is finalized, it can be directly loaded into LMS’ CNC mill.
“Only when we are absolutely happy with every part of the design is the first piece of material cut,” Larsen says.
Benefits of this process abound.
LMS gains time, money, resources.
Northrop Grumman gains a pool of pretrained prospective employees.
And students gain a wealth of invaluable experience they are unlikely to find elsewhere.
“Once you move into the industry, especially with large companies like Northrop Grumman or our competitors, engineers often don’t get an opportunity to get hands-on experience with the products that they’re designing,” Reed says. “It’s a cool, unique opportunity.”