UConn Receives $8 Million to Continue Air Force Research Lab Project in Advanced Manufacturing

Technicians perform maintenance on a C-17 Globemaster III engine during a home station check inspection.
UConn has received an $8 million contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to continue productive research aimed at improving aerospace manufacturing processes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)

The University of Connecticut has received an $8 million contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to continue productive research aimed at improving aerospace manufacturing processes.

The team at UConn will employ smart manufacturing techniques, thermomechanical testing and characterization in extreme environments, and systems engineering concepts to evaluate materials and processes used in the production of aerospace components.

This project began in 2018 with seven faculty researchers studying every step in relevant manufacturing processes. They identified where and how uncertainties leading to defective parts could occur and how to prevent them.

“This is wonderful news for the UConn Tech Park and our researchers,” says UConn President Thomas Katsouleas. “It’s a concrete demonstration of the value UConn brings to our industry partners, to our state, and to the greater pursuit of knowledge. I’m looking forward to the successes generated by this research, and to many more in the future.”

Because of the progress UConn made in the past two years, the AFRL eagerly elected to continue their funding through 2023. This iteration of the project will support 16 UConn faculty, 21 graduate students and one postdoctoral researcher.

The significantly expanded research team will now include systems engineering approaches, which takes the entire cycle of a process into account rather than looking at each step individually. By taking a more holistic view of the processes that they have already analyzed in pieces, researchers will develop solutions for larger patterns of problems on a systemic level.

“The overarching idea here is to actually assess the complete manufacturing cycle of a high-value added aerospace component. Our main objective is to provide transformative capabilities for manufacturing technologies to the AFRL, equipment manufacturers, and the supply chain to reduce scrap rates, increase yield and performance, and cut down failures,” says General Electric Professor in Advanced Manufacturing Pamir Alpay. Alpay is the lead on this project and is also executive director of the Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park.

Several members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation lauded the UConn research team, what they have already accomplished, and the critical areas of R&D that this additional funding will allow them to pursue.

“The faculty, students and staff at UConn are working every day to discover cutting-edge breakthroughs in aerospace that can lower costs to the taxpayer and help keep our country safe. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I’m proud to have worked to get UConn these federal dollars, and I’ll continue fighting to bring more of these wins home to Connecticut,” say U.S. Senator Chris Murphy.

“Connecticut continues to be a leader in aerospace manufacturing, from development and design to producing the best products. This federal funding for research to enhance the safety and durability of aerospace components is a testament to the strength and impact of the research programs offered by the University,” says U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “I will continue to advocate for UConn’s impactful and innovative research programs.”

“The University of Connecticut is one of America’s elite public universities, and it’s no surprise that their School of Engineering research team has been recognized once again with a major contract award from the Air Force Research Lab,” says U.S. Representative Joe Courtney (CT-02). “It’s always great to have federal dollars return home to eastern Connecticut, especially when we know they’re bound for important and exciting new work within UConn’s School of Engineering. This contract award of nearly $8 million in federal funding is a testament to the outstanding body of work that UConn scientists, researchers, faculty and others have built, and they deserve all the congratulations for landing this award.”

“The research happening in Connecticut’s higher education institutions contributes to some of our nation’s greatest advancements in science and technology. I am proud to see the funding I helped secure as a leader on the House Appropriations Committee contribute to the aerospace research at UConn and ultimately support the U.S. Air Force and our defense partners. Through this important collaboration, UConn can use its existing resources and partnerships to ensure Connecticut remains a leader in aerospace research and production and that the U.S. Air Force has the tools they need to defend our nation,” says U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (CT-03).

Taking Industry 4.0 to the Skies

In addition to taking a holistic approach, the UConn research team will also look at how these complex aerospace parts perform under extreme conditions such as extreme pressure and temperatures, which they experience during the manufacturing process and at work in aircrafts.

The team will work to improve physics-based data-driven manufacturing methods specific to the aerospace industry. The project focuses on value-added manufacturing, which takes a relatively inexpensive raw material and transforms it into a valuable aircraft part.

The researchers will use smart manufacturing, which incorporates computer-based manufacturing that can provide more accurate, detailed analyses of systems. This kind of research is at the forefront of a concept known as Industry 4.0, which seeks to optimize computerization in manufacturing.

UConn’s state-of-the-art research facilities at the Innovation Partnership Building and experienced faculty have made the University a competitive leader in manufacturing research.

UConn has long-standing working relationships with several Connecticut-based aerospace companies like Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky Aircraft. Through this project, they are working not only with the Air Force, but these industry partners as well. This research will have far-reaching effects as it benefits all the companies involved in the complex supply chain needed to produce aircrafts.

UConn researchers involved in the program include Rainer Hebert, George Bollas, Lesley Frame, Shalabh Gupta, Song Han, Jason Hancock, Peter Luh, Krishna Pattipati, Ravi Rajamani, Stefan Schaffoener, Matthew Struber, Amy Thompson, Qian Yang, and Shengli Zhou.

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