Elevating the Future of Air Travel
Air passengers unconsciously rely on the view that experts have verified that the airplane on which they fly — and the parts that comprise it — are safe. The behind-the-scenes work that takes place long before passengers set foot in a plane provides peace of mind for travelers. It is a vital industry that contends with high costs and the challenges of new technology adaptation.
David Jack, Ph.D., Baylor professor of mechanical engineering, is working to arm the aerospace industry with resources to make it smarter and safer. From his lab in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), Jack has invested years of high-level research into improving the ways industry can analyze airplane parts for safety. He also looks for ways to do this more efficiently and at less cost without sacrificing the high standards needed to ensure safe flights on technologically advanced machines.
“We can reduce manufacturing defects and the number of parts that go out with a defect. You’ll catch them on the production lines instead of waiting until something starts breaking,” Jack said. “You can apply that to in-service parts as well. Parts on an airplane will wear down over time, and this allows for non-destructive testing for parts currently in use. There’s zero room for error; so, we’re studying it to an extreme degree.”
Research into nondestructive testing technology is approaching major milestones of fruition, from external investment to the formation of a company that can elevate air travel for all involved.
Investigating an Industry Need
Jack is a leading national researcher into composite materials, which combine two or more materials with different physical and chemical properties. Composite materials, which are stronger and lighter than counterparts such as steel or metal, are changing the future of many industries, including aerospace.
However, composites present an industry challenge: procedural inefficiency exacerbated by high costs. There is no easy fix when a problem is detected after a manufacturer builds a composite part for a plane or vehicle. Checking for issues inside an aircraft with composite materials requires the destruction of the composite itself.
“The only way for a manufacturer to determine if the part that was built came out as designed was literally to go in, cut out a section of it with a saw, burn it off, remove resin, look at the fabric and determine if it works or not,” Jack said. “If you can say, ‘Yes, it works, great job everybody,’ that’s great. But that part, unfortunately, is now destroyed.”
That process squanders countless parts and millions of dollars. The aerospace industry needed a way to utilize the benefits of composite materials without the extensive financial and manufacturing burden while ensuring passenger safety. Nearly a dozen years ago, representatives from L3Harris Technologies began conversations with Jack, who had recently joined the Baylor faculty, to address that challenge.
“Those early conversations sparked the whole direction of using ultrasound to inspect composite aircraft to find features that nobody else is able to find,” Jack says.
Ultrasound technology enables users to see inside to test the structural integrity of the aircraft and its parts. Engineers required an evolution of the quality of the technology from those early days to meet their challenges, among them a need higher resolution to more clearly pinpoint issues. Those early conversations further immersed Jack into the needs of aerospace manufacturers, engineers and inspectors, and brought into focus the intersection of the needs of various stakeholders in the process.
“If we could get all three areas — materials, manufacturing and inspection — all maturing simultaneously, we would have an edge as new material systems came online,” Jack said. “Without that simultaneous maturation, you’d have great technologies that couldn’t be used because you couldn’t inspect or qualify them.”
After more than a decade of focused research on campus, partnership with L3Harris and the introduction of a unique Baylor technology commercialization program, the goal of a next-generation approach to nondestructive testing technology is closer than ever.
From the Lab to Market
If a university’s lane is research and scholarship, and an industry’s lane is the development of products or resources, there can sometimes be a disconnect in translating meaningful research into meaningful products. For Jack, Baylor’s Lab to Market Collaborative (L2M) has bridged research in the lab to an impact outside it.
The Lab to Market Collaborative, housed within Baylor’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR), was established to facilitate “a perpetual pipeline of ideas, inventions and technologies” by Baylor researchers, flowing “into the marketplace with speed and agility.” L2M partners with Blueprints Lab, a Waco-based collaborative innovation development and intellectual property (IP) capitalization firm, and Waco Ventures, a Waco-based organization that procures funding for early-stage technology companies. Together, they bring a “unity of effort” that remains focused on the development of real-world technologies and the growth of Baylor’s Tier 1/R1 research pursuits. Baylor faculty and alumni throughout these organizations help the University advance its mission as they advance research into the marketplace.
Todd Buchs, assistant vice provost for research-technology commercialization and industry development, says it is important for Baylor to demonstrate the ability to turn concepts, theories and papers into beneficial products.
“Investors and industry partners are looking for a disciplined process that recognizes core competencies to produce a product,” Buchs says. “David Jack built a fantastic relationship with L3Harris. He understands that you can be diversified in the way you are funded as a researcher, and he is a big proponent of working with industry. This was a perfect fit.”
Jack’s research, sponsored by L3Harris, advanced ultrasound technology to a more mature phase, which demanded further growth and external investment to get the technology to a point at which it could be used in the field. Waco Ventures facilitated major external investment in the technology with the potential for over $5 million in research and development coming to Baylor. That agreement and its associated funding led to the creation of Verifi Technologies, a startup company formed with experienced industry executives with a history of successfully transitioning university technology to global commercialization.
“This whole process has been phenomenal and very educational” Jack says. “I’ve been educated tremendously on how industry works. They’ve opened doors that I wouldn’t have been in position to open and maybe didn’t even know existed. They’re making this into something that will have much more of an impact that I ever thought it could.”
A Multiplier Effect
The growth of Verifi Technologies will shape the next steps of Jack’s nondestructive testing technology research, opening the door for validation of the technology's usefulness and safety with partners in the military, commercial aviation and more. Jack partners with Verifi for research and development that he says will have a multiplier effect for industry and passengers alike.
“We’ll use this partnership to get these technologies certified and authorized to help the aerospace industry make engineering decisionsfaster, in some cases up to 75 percent faster,” Jack says. “Along the way, we’ll use funding to develop the next-generation technology. And for passengers, that will mean planes that are in the air longer because they are not grounded as often for maintenance. How much is safety worth? I don’t have a number to put in it, but it’s a lot if I’m flying.”