Power and thermal management is a key issue for aerospace designs, says a report from tool vendor 6SigmaET.
“For most electronics, product faults typically result in production delays, product recalls or reliability issues. In the aerospace industry, however, the consequences of a thermal failure can be catastrophic. We wanted to explore how aerospace thermal engineers overcome these challenges,” said Chris Aldham, Product Manager at 6SigmaET.
For example, aerospace electronics must survive in some of the harshest environments, enduring regular temperature fluctuations, changes in airflow, pressure and even extreme weather conditions.
“One of the biggest trends identified by our report is the need for ever more functionality to be embedded onto compact, highly-engineered chips,” said Aldham. “Previously, aerospace engineers could easily fit all of the functionality required into a small system that only dissipated around thirty to forty watts. Now, with aerospace electronics becoming both more compact and more complex, the same system must dissipate upwards of 100W, which is 3x the power. While at the same time, the components being selected for each system are getting smaller and smaller, with a higher power density.
“As a result, these high-power chips run a greater risk of thermal complication — an issue that is compounded when they are combined in close proximity. While in other industries, engineers could use air cooling, things are more complicated in the aerospace industry. For example, in high altitude aircraft, fans clog with ice, while in electronics bound for space, the opportunity for natural convection or airflow simply doesn’t exist. To solve this issue, our panel of experts identified liquid cooling and cold plates as the most viable solutions currently available,” he said.
“Another key challenge facing aerospace engineers is the use of commercial and industrial components that are not specifically rated to the limit required to successfully work in the environments they are being exposed to. As engineers move away from extreme-spec designs, and the use of commercial components becomes more common, this problem is only going to get worse.
“Given this trend, thermal engineers must thoroughly test their designs for every environment. With physical tests proving particularly expensive within the aerospace industry, many companies now use digital twinning to model devices in a virtual environment using CFD software before developing their first prototypes.
“One of the most talked about topics is around how aerospace engineers are now turning to 3D printing early on in the design process as a faster, more flexible, and more agile way to create prototypes,” he said. “Usually, 3D prototypes would be used to check that the device fits within a particular environment, but in future, 3D printing will be used to print materials for volume use in real-life scenarios. For example, when it comes to thermal management, traditional microchannel heat sinks leave non-uniform channels in the cold plate. But by using 3D printing, engineers can create a more uniform surface finish and be more precise about channel sizes — giving far greater control to engineers," he said.
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