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Mission Statement 

The purpose of FLAPS-2-APPROACH is two-fold:  To document the construction of a Boeing 737 flight simulator, and to act as a platform to share aviation-related articles pertaining to the Boeing 737; thereby, providing a source of inspiration and reference to like-minded individuals.

I am not a professional journalist.  Writing for a cross section of readers from differing cultures and languages with varying degrees of technical ability, can at times be challenging. I hope there are not too many spelling and grammatical mistakes.

 

Note:   I have NO affiliation with ANY manufacturer or reseller.  All reviews and content are 'frank and fearless' - I tell it as I see it.  Do not complain if you do not like what you read.

I use the words 'modules & panels' and 'CDU & FMC' interchangeably.  The definition of the acronym 'OEM' is Original Equipment Manufacturer (aka real aicraft part).

 

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Entries in Lockheed Martin Prepar 3D (2)

Thursday
Dec132018

Using OEM Panels in the MIP

The introduction of the Boeing 737 Max has meant that many carriers are updating their fleets and retiring earlier production 737 NG airframes.  This has flow on benefits for flight simulator enthusiasts, because more and more OEM NG parts are becoming available due to NG airframes being stripped down and recycled.  

LEFT:  OEM Captain-side DU panel.  Note the thick engraving and specialist DZUS fasteners (click to enlarge).

Although some items, such as high-end avionics are priced outside the realm of the average individual, many other parts have become reasonably priced and are often a similar price to the equivalent reproduction part.

This article primarily relates to the panels used in the Main Instrument Panel (MIP), and lower kick stand.  The term panel means the aluminum plate that is secured to the framework of the MIP, and lightplate refers to the engraved plate that is secured to the panel.

Do You Notice The Difference

This is a common question.  The resounding answer is yes – the difference between OEM and reproduction parts can be noticed, especially if you compare the identical parts side by side.  This said, some high-end companies manufacturer panels that are almost indiscernible from the OEM panel.  These panels are bespoke, expensive, and usually are only made to a custom order.  Therefore, it really depends on which manufacturer/company you are comparing the OEM panel against.

By far the biggest difference between an OEM and reproduction panel, other than appearance, is the tactile feel of a knob, the overall robustness of the panel, and the firmness felt when rotating a commercial-grade switch; the later feels very accurate in its movement. 

LEFT:  Close up detail of OEM lightplate and general purpose knobs (click to enlarge)

There is litle compromise with backlighting as an OEM panel has a consistent colour temperature and intensity without hot and cold spots.  

Using a real panel helps to provide immersion and, as your're using a real aircraft part there is no second-guessing whether the panel is an accurate copy; using an OEM panel is literally 'as real as it gets'.  Furthermore, it’s  environmentally friendly to use second hand parts.  New parts (reproduction or otherwise) are made from  finite resources. 

Limitation

Not every OEM part can work in a home simulator.  For example, the OEM potentiometer responsible for the dimming function in the lower kickstand DU panels cannot be used.  This is because Boeing use a rheostat instead of a potentiometer.  Without going into detail, a rheostat is designed to take into account 115 volts AC commonly used in aircraft.  If using these panels. you will need to change the rheostat to a high-end commercial potentiometer.  

Table 1 outlines 'some' of the main differences between the OEM panels and their reproduction equivalents.

Table 1:  Main differences between OEM and reproduction panels (MIP only).

The information presented in the above table, should not be taken in a way that reflects poorly on the manufacturer of reproduction panels.  There are a few high-end companies whose panels are indiscernible from the real item; it’s the purchaser’s knowledge and the manufacturer’s skill that will define whether a reproduction panel replicates the real item.   ‘Caveat Emptor’ should always be at the forefront of any purchase decision.

Potential Problems Using OEM Panels in the MIP

Potential problems often surface when attempting to mate OEM parts to the framework of the MIP.  This is because reproduction MIPs rarely echo the identical dimensions of their OEM counterpart. 

It's not possible to document every potential problem, as all reproduction MIPs are slightly different to each other.  However, some issues encountered may be the misalignment of screw holes between the MIP framework and the OEM panel, the inability to use the panel's DZUS fasteners, the panel being too large or too small for the MIP in question, and the open framework structure at the rear of the panel (which incorporates the wiring lume and Canon plugs) interfering with the infrastructure of the reproduction MIP, or the mounting of the computer screens.

In general, OEM panels cannot be mounted to a reproduction MIP without major work being done to the framework of the MIP.   The solution is to use a MIP that has been designed 1:1 with the OEM MIP, or fabricate a MIP in-house to the correct dimensions.

Specifics to the FDS MIP

The MIP used in the simulator is manufactured by Flight Deck Solutions (FDS), and although the MIP is made to a very high quality, the dimensions of the MIP are not 1:1. 

LEFT:  OEM Stand-by instrument panel. Although difficult to see from a picture, the overall robustness of this panel surpasses all but the very best reproductions (click to enlarge).

The most problematic issue is that the MIP length is slightly too narrow to enable the OEM panels to be fit correctly to the front of the framework.  For example, the OEM chronograph panel is 1 cm wider than the FDS chronograph panel.  Furthermore, most of the OEM panels (such as the standby instrument, chronograph and landing gear panel) measure 130 mm in height as opposed to the FDS panels that measure 125 mm in height.  This causes problems when trying to line up the bottom of each panel with the bottom of the display bezels

The standby instrument panel does fit, however, there is a few centimeters of space between the panel and the adjacent display bezel frame.  In the real aircraft, the display bezel and the edge of the standby instrument panel almost abut one another.  The autobrake panel does fit as do the lower kickstand panels.

FDS use screws to attach their panels to the upper MIP framework, however, OEM panels use DZUS fasteners.  The screw holes on the FDS MIP do not align with the position of the DZUS fasteners in the OEM panel.  The lower MIP panel (kickstand) in the real aircraft also incorporates a DZUS rail to which the panels are attached.  The FDS kickstand does not use a DZUS rail, and screws or reproduction DZUS fasteners are needed to secure the OEM kickstand panels.

The above said, FDS does not state that their MIP is I:1, and when asked will will inform you that OEM panels will not fit their products without considerable fabrication.

Specialist DZUS Fasteners

The OEM panels used in the upper MIP incorporate into the panel a specialist DZUS fastener.  This fastener is used to tightly secure the panel to the framework of the MIP; screws are not used.  Screws are only used to secure the lightplate to the panel. 

LEFT:  DZUS fastener that secures DU panel to the MIP framework (click to enlarge).

The DZUS fastener is shaped differently to the fasteners used to secure the panels located in the lower kickstand, overhead and center pedestal, and these parts are not interchangeable. 

Reproductions rarely replicate these DZUS fasteners.  However, like many things it's often the small things that make a difference (at least aesthetically).

LEFT:  Rear of OEM Captain-side DU panel.   Note heavy duty rotary switches (Cole & Jaycor brand), neat and sturdy wiring lume, and easy connect Canon plug.  The use of the correct bracket in the panel enables the AFDS unit to fit snugly to the panel.  Note the depth of the external frame which can cause placement issues (click to enlarge).

Advantages Using OEM Wiring Lume and Canon Plugs

A major plus using any OEM panel is that the part usually includes an expertly-made wiring lume that terminates at Canon plug.    If possible, the original wiring lume should be kept intact and additional wiring should be done from the Canon plug.  It’s very difficult to duplicate the same level of workmanship that Boeing has done in relation to the wiring.  Furthermore, the wire that has been used is high-end aviation grade wire.

The Canon plug deserves further mention, as the use of a Canon plug (or any connector for that matter) enables you to easily remove the panel for service work should this be required.  If at all possible, the original Canon plug (and wiring) should be used because it’s neat and tidy and ensures a good connection.  However, if the correct Canon plug cannot be procured then a reproduction plug should be fabricated.  There is nothing worse than having to disconnect wires from an interface card to remove a part.

Configuring an OEM Panel

Configuring an OEM panel to use in flight simulator depends on which panel you are referring to. 

LEFT:  OEM landing gear panel. Like any OEM part, the neatness in relation to the wiring is immaculate.  A Canon plug enables the panel to be connected to a lume which then connects with whatever interface card is in use (click to enlarge).

Panels with knobs, toggles and switches are relatively straightforward to interface with a respective interface card (Phidget card, PoKeys card, FDS SYS card or similar).  Determining the pinouts on the Canon plug that control backlighting requires the use of a multimeter, and then connection to a 5 volt power supply.  If the panel includes annunciators (korrys), then these will need to be connected to a 28 volt power supply (using the correct pinouts).

Technology is rarely static, and there are other ways to interface and configure OEM panels.  The ARINC 429 protocol is becomming inceasingly common to use along with specialist interface cards, and these will be discussed in separate articles.

The Future

The FDS MIP can, with some work, be modified to mount the OEM panels.  However, an easier option is to find another MIP that has been designed to mount the panels, or fabricate a MIP in-house to OEM dimensions.

LEFT:  Rear of DU panel showing korry connections and AFDS bracket (click to enlarge).

Final Call

Aesthetically, nothing beats the use of an OEM panel, and the panels used in the upper MIP and lower kickstand offer little comparison to their reproduction equivalents, with possible exception to bespoke reproductions. By far the biggest challenge is determining the pinouts for the Canon plug, but once known, configuration using a Phidget or other traditional card is relatively straightforward. 

As straightforward as it may seem, potential problems surface when attempting to mate OEM panels to an existing reproduction MIP.  To resolve these issues, often a replacement MIP is needed that has been made to the identical dimensions of the OEM counterpart.

Additional Information

The following articles may provide further information in relation to using OEM parts.

Note that some of these articles are to be reviewed and brought up-to-date (technology and ideas are rarely static).

Acronyms

ARINC 429 - Aircraft communication protocol
DU - Display Unit
Lume - A harness that holds several wires in a neat way
OEM - Original Equipment Manufacturer
MIP - Main Instrument Panel

Sunday
Jul152012

Avionics Software - Selection and the Future

Southwest Airlines is the largest low cost airline in the United States, and has maintained its success on a simple business model - its decision to fly only one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737.  By streamlining their fleet to only one aircraft type, savings can be made in maintenance, logistics and support.

Southwest only need to employ maintenance personnel knowledgeable on one aircraft type, pilots do not need to be cross trained, and more importantly flight and support crews can be airlifted anywhere to begin work immediately should a problem arise.  There is no time delay waiting for a type pilot or engineer to be found.  In the airline business, lost flight time means a loss in revenue.

So what has this got to do with flight simulator or avionics software suites?

Avionics Software Suite – What’s this?

Before proceeding, the avionics suite is the software that controls the aircraft’s avionics systems within the simulator.  The avionics suite controls nearly everything associated with the simulator that is automated and includes among others: the integration of the Main Instrument Panel (MIP) and Main Control Panel (MCP) and the projection of this data to the Navigation Display (ND) and Pilots Flight Display (PFD).  The software does not replace the main flight simulator platform (FSX or whatever), but acts as a separate platform.

It’s important to realize that this software is VERY important.  It is the backbone of any simulation and directly controls whatever flight model you are using.  Any software used must be accurate, robust, replicate real aircraft systems, be reliable, and be able to replicate its outputs on a consistent basis.
There are two broad types of suites – those that can be used in a full flight deck simulation and those that are more suitable to a desktop set-up.

State of Play - Software Contenders

Historically, Project Magenta (PM) was only one contender if you wished to tackle the task of building a B737 simulation.   At the time, the software was complicated and required the user to network several computers.  The software developed by Project Magenta initially led the way, laying the building blocks for others to follow (bravo to PM).

In 2012, contenders are several: Project Magenta, Sim Avionics (Sim-A), Orion, Aerosoft Australia, Flight Deck Software, ProSim 737, Precision Manuals Development Team (PMDG), i-Fly and several lesser known companies produce software that emanates the avionics of the B737.  Other software suites “pop up” on the horizon from time to time as talented software engineers attempt to enter the marketplace.

Which Avionics Software Suite Should I Use?

This is a personal decision and I’m not going to publish a “tit for tat” discussion to which suite from which company is better or worse.  I will say that each company’s software brings different aspects of the flight deck to realisation – some with greater accuracy, detail and finesse than others.  Before you purchase a suite, it’s vital to investigate exactly what that suite can and cannot do in relation to the hardware you have installed in your simulator.

Software suites offered by rival companies are NOT identical to each other.  Some developers have added functions and displays to their software in an attempt to make them more user friendly, or to be used for multiple aircraft types.  Other developers try to maintain as much accuracy with the genuine B737 suite as possible.

Before purchase, you should identify what aspects are important to you, will work your simulator, and represent the functionality you expect.  Flight deck building and simulation is often very much about compromise.

Just because software is expensive or inexpensive, doesn't imply it's well tested and stable; try and see beneath the marketing veil.  Some of the smaller lesser known software suites are very good and provide excellent value for money.  For example, Aerosoft Australia has released a very competitively priced avionics suite which is more than enough for the average simmer who does not want to use an overhead panel.

Reliability, Repeatability, Accuracy, Expectations and Support

The most important facet of any software is reliability and repeatability; both mutually support each other.  Unfortunately, not all suites are reliable or have the ability to repeat defined outcomes.  Some high end and expensive software suites are plagued with teething problems, which for the most part, are left to customers to solve or report to the developer, in the hope that an update will rectify the issue.

As discussed earlier, software suites are not identical in functionality or appearance, even though in theory should mimic a real B737.  Although some of these variables are aesthetic, such as font type, size and colour; attributes that many virtual pilots deem important.  Other issues are not aesthetic and may relate to the available functionality of a particular system – such as the Flight Management Computer (FMC).  Depending upon the developer, upgrades to a software suite maybe frequent or only once every six months.

I have reviewed Sim Avionics in an earlier post.  ProSim 737 will be reviewed shortly.

Expectations

It’s important to understand that replicating all the systems of a fully functional B737 is a continual challenge.  Real simulators can cost upwards of 15 million dollars and expecting the same level of performance, reliability and repeatability from a software suite, for less than $1500.00, is not reasonable.  Add to this the vast array of different computer designs and installed hardware and you can easily see why minor problems can occur.

EVERY software suite has teething and minor issues.  This said; please don't go away with the notion that every piece of software is a nest of problems - this would be incorrect.  What is important, is to go away with the notion of "reasonable expectation".

Some developers, in an attempt to work around complicated issues have chosen not to implement certain systems or parts thereof.  These same systems in another suite may work perfectly or not at all.  For the most part, problems stem in the accurate development and execution of Vertical Navigation and the integration of a “fully functional” Flight Management Computer (FMC).

Support from the development team of the suite you have chosen is paramount.  Many issues can and are easily solved.  But a prompt and efficient support base, regularly visited and updated by the software developers is essential.  It also should be noted, that many developers work closely with users to rectify teething issues within their software.   

Connectivity with Micro$soft Flight Simulator and Prepar3D

Most virtual pilots use FSX or the earlier FS9 as their baseline program.  These programs are no longer being developed or supported by Micro$oft and are quite ancient with regard to much of their software architecture.  Other than X-Plane and a few other “no shows” the only program being developed as a baseline program for flight simulator is the Lockheed Martin Prepar3D.  I am not using Prepar3D, however, I envisage I probably will be within two years.  It’s important to ensure compatible with what well may replace FSX.

The Future

What does the future hold?  As computers became faster and software advances continue, almost exponentially, I envisage that avionics software will become more sophisticated and refined in how fluid they interact with, and parallel real aircraft systems.  If the recent release of PMDG’s B737NGX is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time.

Two Camps

Presently, there are two camps; desktop users and those using partially or fully developed flight decks.  This is not including turn-key type full LEVEL D simulators.

PMDG, closely followed by i-Fly have taken the limelight in the production and release of the NGX which is a truly monumental aircraft simulation more suitable for desktops than a flight deck.  I-Fly has been further developed with functionality to cater to flight deck builders.

Technology doesn't remain static and improvements will drive more companies to produce dedicated software; the days of one or two companies reigning is quickly paling.

Market Share

Historically, Project Magenta was the suite of choice for those wishing to develop a fully functional flight deck, however PM is no longer the “strawberry fox” and is now showing its age, being surpassed by new “high end’ contenders such as Sim Avionics and ProSim 737.  Put simply, these new contenders produce software that is more reliable and sturdier, easier to understand, install, and configure, and can operate on a minimal number of networked computers.

Project Magenta in an attempt to regain market share has also extended its reach to support different jet aircraft including general aircraft. Sim Avionics has followed suit; in addition to the 737-800NG, they also produce avionics suites for the B747, B767, B777 and the A320.

Southwest's Business Model

Other than i-Fly with its duel platform approach, and a few lesser known manufacturers, the only “high end” company dedicated ONLY to the development of the B737 for use in a full flight deck is ProSim 737.  Like Southwest Airlines, ProSim see benefit in producing only one avionics suite, doing it to the best of their ability and providing continued development until, if you excuse the phase “it’s as good as it gets”.

Leaders and Followers

The future is blurred, but in relation to a fully functioning B737 flight deck simulation, I believe that ProSim 737 and Sim Avionics will run “neck and neck”.  Presently, ProSim is more advanced in some aspects than Sim Avionics; but Sim Avionics comes under the mantle of Flight Deck Solutions which is a forward-moving company with a history of aggressive and progressive development.  I don't expect Sim Avionics will sit idle and wither on the vine...

Leadership in desktop simulation will probably be left to the current two major players PMDG and i-Fly; both which will “heckle” for the leadership, with i-Fly probably keeping feet in both camps.  

The other "lesser" contenders will always be there, and this is a good thing.  Competition drives development and improvement, which translates to increased functionality, greater simplicity and more stable software.  This can only benefit the consumer - YOU.

 

 

  • Please note that these are my opinions (albeit shared by other virtual pilots I am in contact with).
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