July 18, 2022

How do you recycle an airplane?

NIAR WERX is using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for its expanded MRO program converting passenger aircraft to freighters.
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Patrick Ball

Shifting consumer demands and rising costs of ocean freight have given rise to a new-again trend in the aviation industry: recycling aging aircraft in passenger-to-freighter conversions.

One example can be found with the WERX program at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), where an expanded maintenance, repair and operation (MRO) program includes an agreement to convert Boeing and Airbus passenger aircraft into freighters.

NIAR recently announced an agreement with Erickson Precision Ventures to work cooperatively on the modification, maintenance and engineering for various Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Specifically, their MRO has begun converting A321 passenger jets into freighters using an already developed and certified Precision Aircraft Solutions Supplemental Type Certificate. NIAR WERX is also developing a 777-300ER passenger-to-freighter conversion for Kansas Modification Center.

NIAR has chosen Dassault Systèmes’ solutions for several of their projects, including creating the first 3DEXPERIENCE Center, creating virtual twins of legacy military aircraft and now the expanded MRO program. We spoke to NIAR WERX Executive Director Dave Jones about their latest initiative.

3DS: Generally, at what point would passenger plane be a candidate for conversion to freighter? How long could it extend the useful life of that aircraft?

DJ: Generally, passenger aircraft that are 15-20 years old are considered good candidates for conversion.  However, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on both the passenger and air freight markets, aircraft that are only 10-15 years old, and some even newer, are being converted.  Once converted, the freighter aircraft may see operation until they are 35 years old or even longer.

3DS: From outside of the industry, this sounds like an interesting trend in MRO. Can you talk about what’s driving the trend? The market for the overhauled freighters? The economics? What kinds of problems does the passenger-to-freighter conversion solve?

DJ: There are multiple factors driving the demand for converted freighters.

  • The cost of ocean freight has increased significantly over the past few years, and is not forecasted to decrease in the foreseeable future.  This has reduced the price differential between ocean freight and air freight.  The reduced price differential coupled with the speed of air freight compared to ocean freight, air freight becomes very attractive.  This is driving a higher demand for air freighters in general.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted consumer patterns and is driving capacity demand for express freight with shipping times that demand air freight speed.
  • Emerging world markets continue to add demand for air freight.  No other form of transport offers the ability to reach as far and as fast as air freight.
  • There are limited options and long lead times for new purpose built freighters.  The remainder of the demand must be filled with converted freighters.

In the 2020 World Air Cargo Forecast, Boeing forecasts a 4% annual growth rate for air cargo traffic. The report further states that over 2,400 freighter deliveries will be required to meet the fleet demand, with 1,500 of the 2,400 deliveries being converted freighters.

There are limited options and long lead times for new purpose built freighter aircraft. Passenger-to-Freighter conversions provide freighter options not available as new from the factory, such as the 737-800 and A321 converted freighters, and offer lower acquisition costs compared to factory-built freighters such as the 777F.

NIAR WERX's MRO program converting passenger aircraft to freighters
Passenger-to-freighter conversions can extend the life of aircraft by 20 years. Photo courtesy of NIAR

3DS: This kind of overhaul feels like reuse or recycling. Can you talk about these projects from a sustainability perspective?

DJ: At the end of their life, passenger aircraft are often stripped of any parts of value, and then shredded for metal reclamation.  By converting a passenger aircraft to a freighter, the aircraft useful life is extended from 15-25 years to 35 years or more.  WERX reclaims and recycles as much material as possible during the conversion process, and by keeping the airframe flying for another 10-20 years, reduces the energy, materials, and waste associated with disposal of a retired aircraft and build of a new aircraft.

3DS: What kind of modifications are required for the conversion from passenger to freighter?

DJ: The modifications required to convert a passenger aircraft into a freighter are extensive and include such things as:

  • Removal of all passenger related interior components
  • Fuselage modification and reinforcement to add a large cargo door
  • Addition of a structural barrier at the front of the cargo compartment to protect the crew in the event of an emergency landing
  • Cabin floor reinforcement or replacement to accommodate cargo weight
  • Addition of a cargo handling system (rollers and guide for the cargo pallets and containers)
  • New cargo compartment interior and lighting
  • Subsystems modifications including fire detection system, environmental control system, electrical system and other aircraft systems
  • Installation of a small crew cabin
  • Cockpit modifications for new controls and displays

3DS: How have Dassault Systèmes solutions enabled you to do this work?

DJ: We adopted the Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE platform early in the program to take advantage of the continuity it offers from design through manufacturing and product build. 

3DS: Sounds like you are using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for more than design, enabling a digital thread.  In what areas do you see the biggest impact of the technology?

DJ: As part of the development phase, we have 3D laser scanned our test aircraft and are able to integrate the 3D scans and the newly engineered parts into [the 3DEXPERIENCE platform] to verify the fit and function of the modification with the passenger aircraft prior to releasing the engineering for production.

Beyond designing and releasing engineering on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, we are able use the digital thread to create manufacturing planning, maintain aircraft configuration control, and manage change packages. 

NIAR WERX's MRO program converting passenger aircraft to freighters
NIAR is using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for its expanded MRO program to convert passenger aircraft to freighters. Photo courtesy NIAR

3DS: What kind of efficiencies do you expect to gain by moving to a platform approach vs the traditional document centric approach?

DJ: WSU is already using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform extensively on other digital twin programs. We are able to leverage that hardware infrastructure, software experience, and IT setup knowledge to accelerate the implementation of 3DEXPERIENCE on a new program. On the 777 conversion, we are able to use the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for concurrent development of engineering, manufacturing, and supplier parts, as opposed to the more sequential route that the document centric approach uses. 

3DS: Passenger-to-freighter conversion goes back to early days of aviation. Are there ways leveraging the platform makes this type of conversion more viable or economical than it was previously? Does it happen faster? Is the work cheaper? Are you able to be more precise or efficient?

DJ: Yes, Passenger to freighter conversions have been occurring for decades. The 3DEXPERIENCE platform enables the engineering team to merge our 3D laser scans with new engineering.  This ensures a first time fit for the new parts on the aircraft.  The continuity of the digital thread streamlines the manufacturing planning and build process leading to a faster time to market and a higher quality product.

The ability to have concurrent development of aircraft scans, new engineering, manufacturing plans, and raw material /hardware requirements lets the program happen faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than the traditional approaches.

NIAR WERX anticipates the actual modification of the aircraft from a passenger to freighter aircraft will take from three to six months depending on the type of aircraft. They expect to delivery of the first A321 converted freighters in 2022. The 777 conversion program is in the engineering phase, with the certification and delivery of the first converted 777-300ERCF expected in 2024.

Learn more about NIAR’s expanded MRO program. Learn more about Aerospace & Defense industry solutions from Dassault Systèmes. Learn about how to optimize Design for Disassembly and strengthen the circular economy.

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