Phantom Works: Boeing's Advanced Research Unit

FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - A technician reaches behind a panel in the cockpit of a Boeing airplane and feels around for a part that needs to be replaced. He unsnaps it and tries to pull it out, but the part bangs into one obstruction and then another.

No matter how the technician maneuvers it, or how hard he pulls, the part remains trapped by surrounding components. The technician finally realizes the part is just too big to remove.

But no passengers will sit on this jet waiting for the problem to be solved.

The part just needs a little design tweaking - in software - before it's built and put into a real airplane. Designing a complex structure with a computer isn't new. Boeing Co. designed the 777 airplane in the early 1990s without ever building physical mock-ups or prototypes; the 777 was the first airplane ever "preassembled" that way. But now Seattle-based Boeing is pushing the computer-aided design and manufacturing envelope in a new direction, called "haptics." Inventing the information technology behind haptics is the job of Phantom Works, Boeing's Bellevue, Wash.-based advanced research and development arm.

Computer-Aided Touch

Haptics - from the Greek word haptein, to touch - is virtual reality that users can feel as well as see. Manipulating a robotic arm, the designer guides an image of a part through an assembly on his screen. When the part hits something, the arm stiffens and stops. The designer can maneuver the part and feel the result, just like he would if he were handling a physical object.

"Now, we'll not only build the mock-up electronically, we will simulate what it's like to service it when it's in the field," says Boeing CIO Scott Griffin.

"We can go out to our airline customers and say, ‘We have actually maintained this airplane already, in the computer, and we know we are not creating problems for you.'"The mission of Phantom Works, Griffin says, "is to look at what's coming down the pike - what's several years away - and pull it back to today and deploy it at Boeing."

Phantom Works employs about 4,000 scientists and engineers in areas such as manufacturing, avionics and IT. The Mathematics and Computing Technology (M&CT) unit within Phantom Works has an annual budget of US$40 million and 250 researchers, most of whom hold advanced degrees in computer science. Current projects include research in expert and neural systems, communications, distributed systems, visualization, performance and scalability modeling, intelligent agents, intrusion detection and 16 other topics.

"Our group looks at those technologies that cut across the whole company and tries to understand what are the trends in those areas," says Albert Erisman, director of M&CT. "We do R&D and advanced prototyping, but it's more ‘R' than ‘D.'" Each year, Erisman says, he creates a detailed 10-year technology forecast for the company.

Boeing put all its R&D teams - IT, engineering, manufacturing and so forth - in one organization so they can cross-pollinate. "For example, one of the things M&CT works on is high-speed machining," Griffin says. "That's not a computing application per se, but the math and algorithms behind it - for example, how fast can a cutter move across a surface but not generate too much heat - came out of that organization. Erisman's people are right on the bleeding edge of that.

"M&CT has two jobs," Griffin adds. "One is to look forward and make sure something doesn't sneak up on us, like Amazon.com sneaked up on Barnes & Noble.

The other is to help deploy technology. So they don't sit in a lab, they spend considerable time out in the factory."

A big jet contains some 3 million parts, and its life cycle can span 70 years, from initial concept to final landing. But the underlying IT changes every 18 months, Erisman says. "There are some unique problems associated with the size and life cycle of our products - the complexity, safety issues and so on," he says.

Filling in the Holes

"These issues are the drivers for us in terms of what R&D is required," Griffin says. "What we are trying to do is understand The Boeing Co., understand where we can use existing technology, understand where the holes are and then fill the holes."

There are a lot of holes. While Boeing's goal is to buy commercially available IT products whenever possible, often those products need to be modified or enhanced in order to scale up for use at the $58 billion aerospace company, says Kenneth Neves, M&CT's director of computer science. "For example, you can buy something like [Microsoft's] NetMeeting, and two or three people can have a conversation. You try to do it with 30 to 40 people, and it falls down."

And sometimes the needed technology doesn't exist. "We are building information systems for the military, and we are using hybrid satellite networks and everything is mobile," Neves says. "Not just the nodes, but there are mobile networks within the network, and we have what we call ‘system-of-systems' issues. This is an area where the consumer market doesn't provide the answers."

Sometimes the answers come wholly from within Phantom Works, and sometimes they come from research partnerships that Boeing maintains with other aerospace companies, IT vendors, universities and government agencies such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. Its relationships with universities are especially close, and professors often do their sabbaticals at Boeing. "They love it at Boeing because it has such a rich collection of problems," Erisman says with a laugh.

Boeing is working with the University of Washington at Seattle on the haptics project and with the University of Calgary at Alberta on mathematical models of how business decisions are made.

Legions of Computers

Phantom Works is also experimenting with software developed at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Called Legion, it's a wide-area operating system designed to build a virtual computer from any number of distributed hosts and objects while presenting to the user the image of a single computer.

Legion finds and schedules resources and handles security issues among disparate operating systems and objects written in different languages. Neves says it could possibly run Boeing's highly complex and distributed product data management and manufacturing resource control systems.

Phantom Works has also formed R&D partnerships with a handful of major IT vendors. "We work on things that will benefit both companies," Neves says. "No money changes hands, and the individual researchers have to want to do it." For example, Boeing is working with IBM to develop computer security and intrusion-detection technology.

Boeing is also working on large-scale, distributed systems with Hitachi Central Research Laboratory in Tokyo and HyPerformix Inc., an Austin, Texas-based startup. "A concern is, how can you know what [the system's]performance is going to be, where to put the data servers, what bandwidth do you need and how does it scale with load?" Neves says.

Predictive Modeling

The answer, he says, is "predictive performance modeling" in which models of user behavior are combined with models of systems behavior. Just as haptics will let Boeing repair a plane before building it, this technique will let the company stress-test a big system before it's deployed.

Neves says this new modeling technique saved Boeing from buying a $24 million server last year. "We showed by predictive modeling that the way [users] were locating and updating their data was causing traffic bottlenecks on the network," he says. "Adding the server would have reduced performance even more because the plan was to further fractionate the database," which would have only increased the bottlenecks.

M&CT's mission statement says it will "create, evaluate and disseminate" technology.

"Dissemination is the goal for everything we do," Neves says. "If the result is a paper widely accepted in the world, but it has no impact on Boeing, that would be one of our failures."

But dissemination is hard, he admits. "You have [internal] customers who don't know what the new technology is, and you say, ‘This can have an impact.' And they say, ‘Well, it's also disruptive. It bothers us. Go away.'" Creating fine-grained securityIn March, Boeing and three other companies announced that they would jointly establish an independent, Web-based trading exchange for buyers and sellers in the defense and aerospace industries.

But the exchange idea raised an interesting question: How can a system allow some data to be freely shared between partners, or between buyers and sellers, while those same companies tightly guard other data when it relates to competitive activities?

The answer is data-level security. Traditionally, companies have protected whole computers using firewalls. What is increasingly needed for business-to-business commerce is finer-grained protection at the level of individual files or data elements, with access to the data based on the profile of authenticated users, says Boeing CIO Scott Griffin.

"It's important for us because we'll compete with Lockheed Martin on one program and work with them on another," he says. "So we are shifting from keeping people out of our computers to protecting the data in the computer.

That's much harder."

But hard problems are what Boeing's Phantom Works lives for, and its computer science research group is pioneering data-level security. The exchange will use XML to describe the information being shared, and the Phantom Works is figuring out how to embed information about security levels into the XML metadata. "What we are doing is using XML to describe not only the part, for example, but to have intelligence within [the XML] that includes who can see the data and who can't," Griffin says. "That's a brand-new thing, an R&D thing."

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