First among equals

According to The University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre’s chief technical officer, Michael Ward, it’s time for UK aerospace sector to compete on its own terms.

The civil aviation industry, for most of its recent history, has been dominated by the West. It’s long been considered a two-horse race between Boeing in the US and Airbus in Europe, but the growth of developing economies has created new entrants. Brazil’s now well-established Embraer and China’s COMAC are just a couple of examples.

This breadth of global completion is causing cost pressures, which could force the established players down to the commodity end of the market. This is particularly true in the competitive, middle-of-the-market segment they’re targeting, where unit costs can have a large bearing on decisions.

The UK clearly has to respond to this cost challenge, but also has to play to its own strengths. And that’s where the other two trends sweeping through aerospace come in: design flexibility and the opportunities made available by technology.

Globalisation, environmental sustainability, and the potential of new design and manufacturing techniques are changing the industry. Perhaps most provocatively, product lifecycles will shorten – even for parts that require extensive certification. Aircraft components will fall closer in line with other industries: products with lifecycles of up to 30 years today, could see that cut in the not-too-distant future. That will completely change the economics of their development.

While it’s widely acknowledged that it’s too difficult for the UK to be genuinely competitive with developing economies in commodity manufacture, that doesn’t mean we can’t realise an advantage in other ways.

We, therefore need to set ourselves apart by defining a digital agenda, with the aim of creating a truly flexible supply chain – not just at the production level, but during product development. Why shouldn’t the UK establish a bold strategic goal to be the first port of call for new product architectures, with the fastest and most reliable way of bringing new products to market? If that was the case, we could consistently and systematically move away from commoditised, lower-value manufacturing which others can easily replicate, and where margins are more challenging.

Design flexibility and efficiency will be a key part of that task. Attitudes towards investment in manufacturing and materials technology will also need to change. This creates a need for companies who see themselves as the production route to address a design challenge, rather than the custodians of a particular branch of processing technology. A company’s mission is more likely to be to ‘design and make high-power-intensity transmission systems’, rather than being the ‘the world’s best gear forger’.

Of course, that begs questions around the validation and certification of aerospace components – particularly in cases where a lot of one-off parts are required. Can we ensure they all meet the right criteria? Where is standardisation a better option? As an industry, we need to develop a logical approach to address this question, based on a combination of factors including technology maturity, benefits of interchangeability, and the need for an optimised component geometry.

Perhaps more significantly, it begs a question of skills. If we set ourselves up to be constantly establishing early-stage production based on the latest technology, we need to establish a skills base which recognises that skill requirements will constantly change throughout the career of individual workers. The key competency in this environment, therefore, will be the ability to learn new skills.

It remains to be seen how the UK will position itself in the changing aerospace manufacturing landscape. But, if we achieve one thing it should be the delivery of a more flexible supply chain: digital technology focused on the introduction of new products. That will invariably mean choosing to see where we can deliver real value, and competing on the terms that made us a market leader in the first place.

Michael Tyrrell :Digital Coordinator