Standing in the carefully controlled clean room, covered head-to-toe in blue clean room attire, Deb Flannagan, senior quality assurance technician, and Trish Glass, certified operator, inspected a piece of microsheet glass before beginning the state-of-the-art lamination process. The paper-thin, lightweight, flexible glass is a crucial component of Rockwell Collins’ new Boeing 777X touchscreen flight display — the first commercial air transport aircraft to have touchscreen flight displays.
“We’re helping Boeing become the first to bring a touchscreen into a commercial airliner,” shared Flannagan, who has been a part of the Rockwell Collins Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) Center of Excellence in Manchester, Iowa, since 1987. “It’s a great honor for us all.”
Employees in the Manchester facility produce displays and other avionics products for the Boeing 747, 787 Dreamliner, 737 MAX and the 777X, as well as the Airbus A350. They also supply displays for Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus and Embraer’s KC390 tankers and products used in fighter aircraft for U.S. and foreign militaries.
Plant manager Maya Murphy shared that with increased demand for air travel, expanded global flight routes, and a retiring generation of pilots, there is a significant need for airlines to recruit and train more pilots — and the quicker the new pilots can get up to speed, the better.
“For younger generations who’ve been raised on touch devices, using similar technology on the flight deck will make the training process more intuitive,” she said. “Having access to new touch technology is expected to enhance the pilot’s experience, and positively impact the aviation industry.”
[Learn more about our Manchester, Iowa, facility through this video.]
Building on success
While the 777X touchscreen flight display is the first in the commercial air transport market, Rockwell Collins has been pioneering touchscreen flight displays since its Pro Line Fusion® touchscreen primary flight display was certified for the Beechcraft King Air family in 2015.
“The Pro Line Fusion display was our first endeavor into touchscreens,” said Derek Owen, senior Operations product transition manager. “Building on that success, we took a different design and development direction with the 777X to automate as much of the production process as possible.”
“To protect the display from damage, we had to create new packaging solutions with our supplier and develop internal handling and processing techniques, including new tools to lift, clean and protect the microsheet throughout the assembly process,” said Owen.
Differences in the details
“There are a lot of similarities between the two displays, but the differences, such as the microsheet glass, are what made this a difficult project,” said Blake Covington, senior systems engineer in the Engineering Design Center. Covington has been designing displays for over 17 years, working closely with the build teams in Manchester to ensure that his designs take advantage of the latest tools and production processes.
“We had to split the display bezel into two pieces to fit the touch sensor. As a result, we didn’t have room for the traditional handles we’ve used on the three earlier generations of this display,” explained Katie Brendecke, AFD-2130 display lead. “Our mechanical engineers took the time to understand how our customers used the handles and designed a wedge-shaped grip to use for installation and extraction instead.”
Rockwell Collins and Boeing began evaluating the feasibility of touch flight controls in 2014 through a joint project on the Boeing ecoDemonstrator 787 flight test program. The joint effort provided an opportunity to create and refine the touchscreen display into a robust solution to meet the needs of Boeing and its customers.
Customers have been a primary driver for the development of touch functionality on the flight deck, shared Brendecke. “When the initial decision was made to use touch technology, we thought that it would be a mixed flight deck with both touch displays and the AFD-2120 non-touch displays,” she explained. “Because our design includes a multi-key panel, which provides an alternate input method in addition to touch, the decision was made to go with all touch displays.”
Global partners for success
“This project encompassed a big team of wonderfully talented people from across the organization — from Coralville, Cedar Rapids and Manchester, Iowa, all the way to Tokyo, Japan,” said Cale Stephens, senior director of the Engineering Design Center. “We had one objective — to make this a mutually beneficial product for both Boeing and Rockwell Collins — and everybody rallied around that. It was certainly a lot of effort, but it was a lot of fun as well.”
Brendecke agreed, stating, “I’m most proud of how quickly our teams worked to bring this new design to life. We started this project thinking that the AFD-2120 would be the display for the 777X. Once we determined that we’d be moving to the touchscreen, we had just a few months to create our initial design and start working on a prototype.
“The entire team stepped up to meet our commitments, coming in early, staying late and doing whatever it took to ensure we were delivering a solid product.”
Sean Nakamura, principal technical project manager in Tokyo, Japan, oversees the quality and material purchasing for the Asia-Pacific region. “A few months ago, I visited our touchscreen supplier’s facility in Taiwan along with my U.S. counterparts. Together, we collaborated on some critical technical details and created a plan to ensure that our products would be of the highest possible quality,” Nakamura shared. “That’s one of many examples of the importance of a global team and how that’s driven this project’s success.”
“Even though this is an evolutionary product, it has a revolutionary aspect with the touchscreen,” stated Brendecke. “This display has the potential to transform the way we think about flying. It’s a testimony to what’s possible when we embrace the Rockwell Collins behaviors: think big, take action and help others succeed.”
By Kalindi Garvin