Boeing 787 certification hinged on molding technology

Boeing’s new 787, which is expected to be certified for delivery Friday, might have never been completed in its current form without a unique collaboration at the University of Washington Center of Excellence for Advanced Materials in Transport Aircraft Structures.

The key innovation that the UW center supported was a way to make “compression molded” parts from carbon fiber composites for small parts. The method was far cheaper than the regular process of layering long carbon fibers used for air frame components such as hull and wing.

Sen. Maria Cantwell today visited facilities of the UW center in Seattle to talk with people leading the composites training and development effort there. She said when she returns to Capitol Hill in the fall, she'll make it a priority to make sure the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passes Congress and that it contains funding for the UW center.

In recent years the center has been partly funded with $650,000 in FAA matching funds. Cantwell said she expects that finding to continue at similar levels.

While the new method was being developed, Boeing engineers worked for many months with FAA officials, UW researchers and representatives of Hexcel Corp. (NYSE; HXL) to gain approval for this approach to composite manufacture, said Mark Tuttle, a UW professor of mechanical engineering and director of the AMTAS center.

The focus was to help the FAA become comfortable with the new process so that it would be willing to certify it as part of the 787.

Now the process is used for about 600 parts in each 787, including window frames and door components.

Students attending today's event, including Ashley Tracey and Curtis Hickmott, said they expected no problem landing a job at Boeing (NYSE: BA) or some other aerospace company, adding they’re often contacted by recruiters.

Thursday’s press event also was attended by UW President Michael Young, and Larry Ilcewicz, FAA chief scientific advisor for certification of composite materials.

James Hermanson, chair of the UW Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said the AMTAS program is funded largely by a combination of FAA money and private-sector funding from Boeing and other companies.

The center also provides training for graduate engineering students specializing in composite structures. Hermanson said the program is currently training 10 doctoral-level students.

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