The Next Little Thing
Why 2006 is the year of the very light jet.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
American Honda Motor Co.
(Page 3 of 6)
Raburn’s biggest customer for the Eclipse 500 is Ed Iacobucci, who worked at IBM, then founded Citrix Systems, retired, moved to Florida, and invented DayJet, an air taxi company that depends on “complexity science” for scheduling. Developing the computer models to give customers the flexibility of a taxi service is an undertaking on the order of the manned moon missions, but with the help of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Santa Fe Institute, Iacobucci has created the system that will make it work.
Raburn has suffered slings from market analysts, who have referred to Eclipse as a “dot.com with wings,” but if he can hold his price—a new Eclipse ordered today would cost $1.6 million—he will be selling a five-seat, twin-engine jet for the same price pilots now pay for a single-engine turboprop with as many as 12 seats. The next-cheaper twin VLJ is Adam’s A700 (with seven seats instead of five), selling for $2.25 million. To hit his price point, Raburn believes he has to change how an airplane is made.
The surprise: After studying composite construction, he chose aluminum. “Composites can’t be scaled,” he says, to meet the company’s mass production model envisioned at 500 aircraft a year. That’s how many Eclipse 500s the company must build (and sell) in order to break even, according to Raburn.
“By the end of next year,” says company spokesman Andrew Broom, “we’ll be able to build three or four airplanes a day. That’s a thousand airplanes a year.”
To build airplanes that quickly, Raburn has
replaced the manual method of riveting pieces together with an automated aluminum construction process known as friction-stir welding. The process was first used on rockets, but never tried extensively on aircraft.
Friction-stir welding was invented and patented in 1991 by the Welding Institute in the United Kingdom. Using specialized tooling, a manufacturer first softens without melting two pieces of metal to be joined. A spindle then stirs the two pieces of aluminum together. The plasticized material is transferred from the front of a pin tool to behind it as the tool traverses along the joint. Because the aluminum never melts, friction-stir welding more closely approximates a forging or extrusion process rather than traditional welding.
Eclipse claims that friction-stir welds are two or three times stronger than single-row riveted joints and that the process is 10 times faster than manual riveting, and four times faster than automated riveting. The company says the process will produce very smooth surfaces, thereby further reducing assembly time by cutting the time required to prepare the aircraft for painting.