UConn-Air Force Research Lab Collaboration Supports Workforce Development

Project Daedalus, a collaboration between UConn and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is tackling industry challenges using Industry 4.0 techniques. UConn researchers work with companies in Connecticut while helping students develop valuable skills.

Project Daedalus is addressing relevant challenges for the aerospace industry using modern technology. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Michael Davis)

The University of Connecticut is continuing its research partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to engage in vital collaborative research and development with both large and small Connecticut businesses in the aerospace industry and to educate students to work on similar design and manufacturing challenges after they graduate.

Project Daedalus collaborates with industry partners to tackle a specific challenge using Industry 4.0 techniques.

“Our industry collaborations offer invaluable experience for the students and bolster the Connecticut economy by offering industry specific insight into current manufacturing concerns and areas of improvement,” says associate dean for research and industrial partnerships, Pamir Alpay.

The insight students gain into how these companies operate, and the scientific and engineering challenges they face, provide the students with invaluable assets in the post-graduation job search.

“That direct collaboration can potentially lead to jobs,” UConn’s project manager for Project Daedalus Alexandra Merkouriou says. “That kind of knowledge of processes, you can’t pay for.”

Project Daedalus began in 2018 with a $5.4 million contract over four years. This contract supports six projects led by seven faculty, and 15 graduate students, undergraduate students, and post docs.

In August 2020, UConn received an additional $8 million contract for three years. Across nine projects, this contract supports 15 faculty, 21 graduate students, and a post doc.

These projects provide transformative capabilities for manufacturing technologies which allow industry partners to reduce the amount of material scrapped, increase product yield and performance, and cut down on product failures.

Taking Learning from Classrooms to the Manufacturing Floor

Distinguished professor of materials science and engineering Harold Brody is leading a group working with Sikorsky Aircraft to use computer modeling to improve design and manufacturing processes for aerospace castings. Casting is a manufacturing process by which a molten alloy is poured into a mold, and the alloy solidifies into the desired part with the near net shape geometry and specified properties.

The computer models and experimental casting research Brody’s team is working on will predict potential problems with manufacturing a part in the design stage, before the part is cast, saving the company a tremendous amount of time and money through reduction of experimental castings.

“From the standpoint of aerospace companies, the real concern is delivery time,” Brody says. “If you have to learn on the manufacturing floor, it could take years between the original manufacturing design and getting to the point when a quality casting can be put into service for a critical application.”

The group is also helping design better-performing casting alloys. They are using computer modeling together with an experimental benchmark casting process to determine how these alloys will behave during manufacturing. The experimental casting facility, the IMS Foundry, is a major asset for manufacturing research, as well as STEM teaching and outreach.

Sean Small, a materials science and engineering major, began working on the casting initiative after his sophomore year in 2019.

Small is working on a model to determine the mechanical properties of alloys. This is critical knowledge for the industry as they want to make the most effective material possible and know ahead of time how it will perform.

Working on AFRL projects allows students to gain valuable first-hand experience with problems in industry.

Working on problems of interest to the industry gives our students a leg up — Harold Brody

“All the stuff you learn in your coursework is valuable and companies care about it,” Small says. “The company gives you an actual problem they want an answer for.”

This partnership helps develop the state’s future workforce.

“You need to know how to solve real problems and see technical challenges from a broad perspective,” Brody says. “Working on problems of interest to the industry gives our students a leg up.”

By the nature of this collaborative research, students get to see how people are tackling the problem from all angles.

“We want to make sure by working with regional aerospace companies and their suppliers, by working with government labs, like AFRL, and by working on big challenges, our students will know how to do research in a broad context, in a strategic context together with the in-depth science required for a Ph.D.,” Brody says.

Cayman Cushing, a graduate student in Brody’s lab, says the project benefits both Sikorsky and the researchers.

“The cutting-edge research of our solidification team coupled with the needs of our industrial collaborators allow us to work at the forefront of alloy casting technology,” Cushing says. “Our relationship with industrial collaborators is symbiotic. We provide value to them, and they allow us to do it.”

Mohamad Daeipour, a graduate student in Brody’s lab, has had the opportunity to work directly with engineers at Sikorsky. Daeipour says this has helped him understand the importance of communication between designers and manufacturers in industry whose work can be mutually beneficial.

“I’m developing communication skills that allow me to present high-level information to groups of people who don’t necessarily have the same scientific background as I do,” Daeipour says. “I’m also learning a lot about engineering principles and design for manufacturing processes, which is why I’m here.”

Providing R&D Opportunities

Project Daedalus also engages smaller companies such as Aero Gear Inc. in Windsor which produces gears for aerospace applications.

Aero Gear is working with assistant professor of materials science and engineering Lesley Frame and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Jeongho Kim to simulate the impact of residual manufacturing stress on the performance of their parts.

The parts Aero Gear produces start as formless metal. Manufacturing processes gradually add features like gear teeth. Through all these processes, stress builds up inside the part. This stress impacts how the gear performs, but there is no way to know how, exactly, the stress will change the gear’s performance.

This is a significant problem as determining and overcoming the impact of residual stress is a time and cost-intensive process.

The team is now working to validate the model. This would be a major advancement as there is currently no model to address this problem in the industry.

“It’s hard to put a number on it,” Patrick Brueckner materials engineer manager at Aero Gear, says. “It’s incredibly valuable to be able to predict what direction and what magnitude something is going to move.”

This partnership has allowed Aero Gear to address a significant challenge they normally would not have the time or resources to invest in.

“As a small or medium corporation, the only way we can survive is if we’re at the bleeding edge of technology,” Brueckner says.

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