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In the late 60’s, we installed the first Numerical Control (NC) machines in the manufacturing plants. These machines were used to carve out the most complex structural parts of the airplane in thick solid aluminum blocks. It was a requirement, particularly for the military aircrafts, to get the best performance with the lightest structure. From the CAD definition of the shape of a complex part, we developed a software to define the paths of the machine tool and then to download such information to drive the NC machine. This was the birth of Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM).
The integration on the same database of CAD and CAM was called CAD/CAM. For the first time in the industry, the exact same geometry data was used for Design, Analysis and Simulation, and Manufacturing, thereby eliminating all the transcription and interpretation mistakes along the design and manufacturing processes.
In the early 70’s, the first two airplanes whose skin and main structural parts were designed, optimized and manufactured with our CAD/CAM solutions were the Alphajet (a military trainer) and the Mercure (a commercial airplane).
As a summary, from 1967 to 1977, one can understand how we took advantage of the technological innovations from computers, interactive graphic terminals and numerical control machines, within the extremely favorable environment of an innovative enterprise addressing a dynamic commercial and defense aircraft market. We initiated a new way to design, simulate and manufacture. More generally, most of the aircraft industry took a leadership position in the CAD/CAM revolution, in the USA as well as in Europe. As a matter of fact, the mandatory requirement was to optimize the airplane through calculation, and to use the numerical control machines to carve the main structural components.
During this decade, along with my team I developed a full set of 3D CAD/CAM applications and all our airplanes were progressively designed and built using them. But they were a set of tools, developed step by step according to specific and urgent requirements, with a relatively low level of integration. Also, they were rather complicated to use. As a matter of fact, we were still dependent on punched cards and alphanumeric language for most of the applications. For instance, because the computers and graphic terminals were too slow, it was not possible to have an easy intuitive real time user interface for intersecting two surfaces. You had to be a specialist to use the software. My team developed the software and used it on the request of the engineers of other departments of the enterprise. For example, suppose a designer in the Design Office requested a section of the wing at a given plane, my team would execute the job with our computer programs and deliver the requested section curve on paper, drawn by the computer on a drawing machine. In other words, the 3D CAD/CAM was not yet fully integrated and deployed within the internal working processes of the enterprise.
The only way to significantly reduce the design and manufacturing cycle time was to make it easy for the non-specialists of all the departments of the enterprise to use the 3D CAD/CAM software as their own tool. For instance, the top management was extremely eager to reduce the design and manufacturing cycle time of a new wind tunnel model of the aircraft by a factor of 4. That would allow testing four variants of the same airplane before launching the detail design of the best variant.
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