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Originally published January 15, 2015 at 6:00 PM | Page modified January 16, 2015 at 10:49 AM

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Boeing and UW launch lab so professors, engineers can improve automation

On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee will officially open a new Boeing Advanced Research Center at the University of Washington, where company engineers will research automation of airplane assembly alongside UW professors and grad students.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter


Boeing and the University of Washington are taking their collaboration to greater heights with a new campus research center where doctoral engineering students, UW professors and Boeing engineers will work side by side on projects focused on automating aircraft assembly processes.

The jet maker is investing $800,000 per year initially to fund the first four research projects at the new Boeing Advanced Research Center, company spokesman Peter Conte said.

Jointly led by Boeing-employed engineers working as affiliate instructors and UW engineering professors, the 4,300-square-foot facility at the Department of Mechanical Engineering has been planned for more than a year.

Gov. Jay Inslee will officially open the new facility Monday in a ceremony attended by UW President Michael Young and Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner.

The center is already up and running, with an existing lab gutted, refurbished with new equipment and stocked with airplane parts.

Todd Zarfos, the Boeing vice president who heads the Washington state engineering-design center and is also responsible for the company’s relationship with UW, said that the new center will streamline the research.

“By having both parties working together on a daily basis, we hope to see an acceleration in technology development,” Zarfos said.

One initial project is designed to make it easier for mechanics to build the insides of airplane wings by using small, remotely controlled robots to crawl inside the cramped wing interior and place nuts on bolts, seal seams and inspect the space for debris.

Other projects include automating the riveting of fuselages and predicting the final shape of certain aircraft structures.

Zarfos said the research will be geared to look ahead beyond immediate applications, to find technology that can be implemented on Boeing’s next new airplane or next new production system.

He said the UW and Boeing have negotiated a standard agreement to protect intellectual property. Graduate students working on the research will still be able to further their academic careers by publishing papers, but only with material that is not specific to Boeing applications.

Anything developed that’s specific to Boeing will be closely held. And anything the university researchers develop that may be novel can be separately licensed.

“Both sides are protected,” Zarfos said.

A history of collaboration

Collaboration between industry and academia has a long history, especially in science and engineering. The UW’s relationship with Boeing stretches back to the company’s founding almost 100 years ago.

In 1916, Bill Boeing hired two UW engineering graduates who later became presidents of the company. In 1917, he donated a wind tunnel to the UW, paid for with a personal gift of almost $6,000, on condition that the university establish an aeronautics curriculum.

Through the years, Boeing has invested a total of nearly $80 million in the UW. In the past 10 years, it’s given nearly $20 million to UW’s College of Engineering for research, graduate scholarships and undergraduate-student support.

Until now, Boeing has given money to specific departments or specific professors to do research on something the company needs. The university researchers then pursue the work, with quarterly reviews by Boeing.

What’s new is the day-to-day, side-by-side working together envisioned at the Boeing Advanced Research Center.

That could potentially increase a long-standing concern among some academics about private companies funding and directing work for their own interest at publicly financed universities.

Jack Lee, professor of mathematics and chair of the UW faculty-senate committee on planning and budget, said strengthening ties between the university and industry has been pushed by Young in response to the state slashing financial support in recent years.

“It’s an alternative way to bring research funding to the university, which we need,” Lee said.

He added that the university nonetheless needs to be careful to ensure that research priorities and direction are not entirely dictated by corporate sponsors.

He said engineering researchers must pursue what looks promising and useful, and if some of that is useful to Boeing, that’s fine. But he cautioned that “the university is here for more than doing research that private corporations need.”

“Sometimes the innovation that really impacts society 20 years from now comes out of purely curiosity-driven research,” Lee said.

He said he welcomes the Boeing investment and collaboration, but also that “We need to keep our eyes open to ensure we don’t become a partially owned subsidiary of Boeing.”

The center is headed by Per Reinhall, chair of UW’s mechanical-engineering department. An associate director is Jim Buttrick, a Boeing engineer who received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at UW 30 years ago.

The center opens with eight graduate students and six UW faculty members on the research team. Four Boeing engineers, including Buttrick, are assigned full time as affiliate instructors.

“We can see that growing to eight (Boeing engineers) in the short term,” said Zarfos, “Hopefully it will generate other opportunities, and (in the future) we’ll be looking at potentially expanding it.”

If the project works as well as expected, he said, “we’ll be looking at doing similar things at other universities.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or

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