Since its inception, the National Institute for Aviation Research’s digital twin program has been rife with opportunities to progress research, digital transformation, engineering technology and sustainability efforts. It’s also been an important career steppingstone and training ground for more than 250 Wichita State University students, who have gained valuable applied learning experiences while working on the project.
“Our students have an incredible opportunity that not only exposes them to the latest industry methods, processes and technologies; but they literally get paid to learn and grow in their careers. Most of our students get job offers before they graduate, because they are already industry-ready,” said Ryan Longwell, applied learning program manager for WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR).
Through the digital twin program, engineers and technicians dismantle aircraft — including a Black Hawk helicopter, two B-1B Lancers, two F-16 fighter jets, and a M113 personal carrier — and scan each individual piece to create a digital replica of the aircraft. This allows for easier repairs on older models and keeps them in service longer.
Students from across campus have been able to benefit from these hands-on learning opportunities, Longwell said.
“We largely have engineering students, but the positions are not restricted to engineering students alone,” he said. “The projects are engineering-focused, but our teams consist of students from various colleges at WSU. As long as the student is able to perform the required work and is willing to learn, that is sufficient.”
Those who work on the project earn an average of $17 an hour for their work, and they learn as many soft skills as they do technical skills.
“Students learn office etiquette that prepares them to be industry-ready,” Longwell said. “They learn to present themselves in a professional manner, prompt and effective communication, time management, meeting deadlines, and working together in large groups. Additionally, they learn to work in a diverse environment that enables growth and challenges effective communication.”
Student workers also get a bit of a history lesson while they’re working on the aircraft.
“The focus of these projects is to propel the government platforms and programs to the modern age by infusing new technologies for defense readiness. The government platforms we are working on can go back all the way to the 1960s,” Longwell said. “In the course of their employment with the digital twin lab, the applied learning students also get exposed to practices and methods from the 60s while getting an opportunity to contrast it with newer methods and practices.”
Due to Department of Defense restrictions, only U.S. citizens can work on the current digital twin programs, Longwell said, and every employee must complete a background check and citizenship verification.
The program has also further strengthened some of Wichita State’s longstanding partnerships, including a 20-year collaboration with Lockheed Martin. Earlier this year, the aerospace giant named Wichita State University and WSU Tech as a tier one collegiate partner institution.
NIAR is working with the Lockheed Martin on the F-16 digital twin project. Though the value of the applied learning experiences is priceless, it’s also giving students an advantage for post-graduation careers.
“Not only is the digital twin making an impact on mission readiness for the USAF and U.S. Army; it is also creating a talent pipeline through applied learning that is unmatched,” said Brian Hershberger, WSU grad and lead for Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works Integrated Systems Air Vehicle. “The project is preparing students to enter the workforce with the skills they need to succeed during the digital transformation of the engineering industry.”
Jeremy Sitz, a recent aerospace engineering graduate from Andover, worked as one of the first students on the digital twin project.
“That project became a demonstrator of how useful digital twins of legacy vehicles could be, and thus multiple more digital twin projects followed,” Sitz said.
While he was a student, Sitz spent two years as a part modeler for the digital twin program. He now works full-time for NIAR and has added systems logic modeling and part-checking to his responsibilities.
“Working here for two years has made me very proficient in many 3DExperience workbenches, primarily CATIA and ENOVIA,” he said. “I’ve also gained knowledge about aircraft manufacturing methods and structural standards and design along with more general teamwork and communication skills.”
Darren Richardson, senior in mechanical engineering from Basehor, Kansas, is an intern lead in the sustainment department. He said the digital twin program is a major advancement for vehicle modification and maintenance, and he’s picked up useful skills through his work.
“I’ve learned skills like data management, how to interpret engineering drawings, and have furthered my communication and analytical skills,” he said.
Richardson said he plans to continue his work with the digital twin program after graduating and will move into a full-time career.
“Our digital twin program is accelerating quickly so we are always in search of new employees,” he said. “I enjoy working on the digital twin program because of the positive impact the program has on our military.”
Taylor Huslig, graduate student in business analytics and information management from Great Bend, is the assistant program manager for NIAR sustainment.
“I coordinate with management to ensure teardown activities are on schedule to meet required objectives and read engineer drawings to identify military aircraft parts,” she said.
Huslig chose to work with the digital twin program because it’s the cutting edge of technology.
“I have learned the importance of teamwork, how to communicate effectively, and many life skills as well,” Huslig said. “The digital twin is a great way for students to gain experience and apply what they are learning in the classroom to the real world.”
Cameron Holston, junior in aerospace engineering from Helena, Montana, coordinates the movement of the aircraft parts and components around NIAR.
“I make sure each one makes it through the entire process correctly and then make sure they are stored properly. Each part goes through a process between six and 10 steps long with movements between each step – from being taken off the aircraft to when it heads to storage,” Holston said. “I ensure each part is at the correct step with all the correct identifying markings at all times. It’s quite a lot to keep track of.”
He said he’s been interested in working for NIAR since he was a freshman.
“I have gained quite a lot of helpful experience while working here. Getting a hands-on feeling of all the aircraft components has already proved to be valuable in my classes, and I am sure will only become more valuable over time,” Holston said.
Kurt Kaan, a senior studying engineering technology management from North Carolina, specializes in sheet metal design modeling, helps with the modeling, and trains new interns.
“I have always been fond of airplanes, especially military aircraft. Growing up, I always built things with Legos, so being able to take an aircraft and model it piece-by-piece and end up with a fully constructed model just brings out that inner childhood,” he said.
Kaan said that his experience at NIAR will undoubtedly serve him well in his future.
“Being able to have a small team to lead has allowed me to gain leadership and managerial skills that I will use in my future,” he said. “Helping with creating program guides and training new interns has also taught me how to be more of a multitasker.”