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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Lamborghini testing at the UW: The rest of the story

My report last week that Lamborghini is funding a new research lab at the University of Washington doesn’t do justice to the story.

It’s way more than a few computers running simulations.

Lamborghini is supporting a full-blown research center and one of a few places in the world where aeronautical approaches to materials testing are being used to help develop the supercars of tomorrow.

Unlikely as it sounds, the UW is now crash testing for Lamborghini in a new lab underneath the engineering school’s department’s wind tunnel.

Officials today will formally open the Automobili Lamborghini Advanced Composite Structures Laboratory.

Lamborghini has actually been quietly working with the school for years, taking advantage of its expertise in exotic-material testing and its close partnership with Boeing.

While Boeing was developing the first carbon-fiber jetliners, Lamborghini was using the strong but finicky material to reduce its vehicles’ weight and increase their performance.

If the lightweight material is fabricated properly, it’s actually more crash resistant than metal, explained Paolo Feraboli, assistant professor of aerospace structures and materials.

Many schools research composite materials, but the UW has a particular specialty in developing effective ways to prove and certify the safety of the exotic materials when used in airplanes and now automobiles.

Lamborghini came to the UW to emulate the testing approaches of airplane companies, which do rigorous testing and analysis of components, as opposed to the multiple crash tests of finished vehicles practiced by like the auto industry. This can save millions if flaws are discovered during the development stage and fixed before an assembly line begins up and begins producing finished vehicles.

“Other guys do great research, try new materials, invent new ways of making materials … but we’re really not into that,” Feraboli said. “We’re not trying to come up with a new composite. We’re less innovative in that regard. Our effort is ‘how do we deal with this problem? We have a bird strike; how do we deal with it?’”

Feraboli grew up in Bologna, the center of Italy’s exotic-car industry, and worked for Lamborghini in 2001 and 2002.

Later he worked at Boeing on the 787 and joined the UW in 2005.

Two years later, Lamborghini and the school began discussing the company’s formal support of Feraboli’s work, which led to a $1 million donation and the new labs.

“This is like a dream,” he said Monday, while demonstrating the carbon-enhanced performance of a Murcielago LP 670-4 SuperVeloce brought to Seattle for today’s formal opening. the event. “Hopefully it’s good for everybody to realize how important Boeing is for Seattle.”

The city is an engineering hub in part “because the kind of technology Boeing does — there’s no equal, so people like Lamborghini are willing to come 8,000 miles to do this,” he said en route to a Ferrari dealership on Capitol Hill, where he waved and revved the orange 670-4 as he drove past the showroom.

Feraboli helped design the composite body of the Murcielago, which was the first Lamborghini to make major use of carbon fiber when it debuted in 2001.

In the limited-edition, $450,000 670-4, carbon composites account for 31 percent of the structural weight.

Inside stately Guggenheim Hall, where the UW has been teaching aeronautical engineering since 1930, several rooms have been painted black with a yellow racing stripe and decorated with models of Lamborghinis made with carbon composites.

One room is full of computers. Another is like a small factory, with equipment to fabricate carbon-fiber parts, scan for defects and then blast them with electricity to simulate lightning strikes.

But the coolest stuff is hidden below the school’s wind tunnel, in a basement room housing the tunnel’s enormous air compressor. Now the compressor is also powering a rail-mounted test sled that’s being used to crash test Lamborghini components, mounted on chassis sections that are shipped from Italy.

The lab also has cannons used to fire pieces of shrapnel and frozen chickens at carbon-fiber materials used in airplanes, to test their resistance to exploding engine parts and bird collisions.

Feraboli doesn’t think Boeing’s troubles assembling the 787 will give carbon composites a black eye.

“First of all, they caught it — that means the process works,” he said. “Had they not caught it and the plane came down, then it would have been a terrible event. The fact they caught it doesn’t say anything terrible for the carbon itself or for Boeing — other than that they’re losing money.”

Then the conversation returned to the Murcielago and the lab.

“Once Lamborghini gets into you it never leaves. It really is like that,” he said. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”

Comments | Topics: boeing, lamborghini, UW


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