The changing face of aviation

Digital manufacturing 20012021
Digital manufacturing 20012021

Airborne UK’s technology programme manager, Jamie Snudden looks at the changing economics of aviation, whilst improvements in composites manufacturing are enabling new market segments to emerge and become more viable.

After decades of stable growth, commercial aerospace has started to reach the plateau of the ‘S-curve’ of progression, with incremental advances in technology providing small benefits to cost and sustainability. Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic there were faint hints of change in the air, for example the blended wing body and bird of prey concepts from Airbus, but there was little to show in the way of urgency to realise these technologies to fruition.

Then the pandemic happened and suddenly the stable growth that the industry had enjoyed fell collapsed overnight, and it is still uncertain how long recovery will take. Alongside the signs of technological step change, there was the beginnings of a groundswell of support for climate change, with aviation squarely in their sights. It is clear that as well as being devastating for the industry, Coronavirus may well also prove to be a catalyst for both digital transformation and for sustainability, as has already been seen in other industries, such as with the UK government’s aim to ban sales of diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030.

Airborne’s automated laminating cell offers a fully autonomous solution for manufacturing high precision laminates

These market forces will be increasingly prevalent in aviation, and there are clearly moves in commercial aviation to act quickly, such as the announcement by Airbus of a focus on hydrogen powered airliners and the progress that Heart Aerospace is making on an electric regional airliner. The damage already caused by Coronavirus, combined with the push from these market forces and the pull of new technologies has also created room for new market segments to emerge. These include sub-regional electric flight, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commercial supersonic transport and urban air mobility (UAM).

Greener aviation

Motivated by a need to become environmentally friendly, electric propulsion is being adopted by these emerging market segments. UAS has been used significantly over the course of the pandemic to deliver goods and drugs to hard to reach areas. With internet commerce becoming a lifeline over the pandemic, it is likely to continue to grow and key players have seen drones as a solution to rapid, autonomous and scalable logistics. UAM and sub-regional electric sectors provide a sustainable alternative to road travel, helping to reduce congestion and reduce vehicle emissions. While commercial UAM travel is still some way off, the sub-regional sector is much closer to being a reality. An example is the Faradair BEHA, which utilises a hybrid electric powered propfan to provide sustainable, quiet regional flight.

In addition to the new sustainable markets, a further segment is beginning to re-emerge. Supersonic transport may finally become commercially viable nearly two decades after the retirement of Concorde. Boom Supersonic and Aerion in the US are developing new airframes using modern technologies such as 3D printing and composites to solve many of the issues that plagued Concorde. The market forces acting on subsonic commercial aviation may also drive up ticket prices as airlines react to reduced demand through continued use of digital technology impacting on business aviation. Increased scrutiny on environmental impact is already forcing the early retirement of older and larger airframes, an example of which the earlier than planned decommissioning of the British Airways 747 fleet and the lack of A380 sales. This may mean that the difference between subsonic and supersonic ticket prices may not be as great as it was with Concorde, and passengers’ willingness to pay may be higher due to a reduction in the number of flights taken.

Blank-sheet designs

One common technology runs through all these new market segments: Composites. It is possible to mount electric propulsion systems on aircraft due to the lightweight nature of composite materials offsetting the heavy batteries. Use of composites on supersonic aircraft allows for a greater level of control over the thermal expansion of the airframe, avoiding the ‘growing fuselage’ problem of Concorde. With blank-sheet airframe designs comes a significant opportunity for designers to create efficient structures that have been optimised for production to incorporate the latest manufacturing technology.

Composites manufacturing technology is developing rapidly. Whilst generally complex, composites manufacturing has the most to gain by implementing Industry 4.0 features through step changes in efficiency and cost.

An example of this is demonstrated by Airborne’s automated laminating cell; made up of the building blocks of automated tape laying, ply cutting and pick and place combined with digital in-process inspection to result in a fully autonomous solution for manufacturing high precision laminates. Further benefits for the emerging markets include the economies of scope made possible by the flexibility of these solutions to manufacture more than one component at a time and the minimisation of human inspection time. This second point is particularly important for the emerging markets, since generally the production rates, the variation in airframe versions and design cycles may be closer to the automotive market than aerospace. Flexible autonomous solutions will give airframe manufacturers competitive advantage through a faster turnaround of designs and lower production costs. This approach will also open up business model innovation opportunities such as manufacturing-as-a-service.

Whilst the benefits of these technologies are considerable, the challenge lies in the application of the solutions. This challenge sits on two levels: financial and technological. The technological challenge is for the designers to know and understand their capabilities during the development phases before designs are frozen, in order for the manufacturing and automation processes to be factored in to the design at an early stage to ensure production is as efficient as possible.

Flexible financial solutions

The financial challenge, particularly for smaller players in the emerging markets that may not initially have access to the capital to invest in all the manufacturing technology required for serial production, is to select the most profit worthy direction of the available capital. To alleviate this financial challenge, flexible automation solutions, such as the automated laminating cell can be used to manufacture multiple components and reduce prototyping cycle times, either commissioned in-house or through manufacturing-as-a-service using equipment installed at Airborne.

To understand which automation solutions should be implemented in a production process, the process can be mapped and by using business requirements and production forecasts, it is possible to create cost-benefit analyses for each applicable automation solution to prioritise investment. As a consequence a further hurdle presents itself whereby additional capabilities are required on top of those already needed to design airframes. These include automation, process engineering and digitalisation capabilities, something Airborne are aiming to facilitate with their Industrialisation Partnership services offering.

Aviation is at a critical point, with a multitude of threats that may endure even longer than Covid-19. Exciting new market segments are beginning to emerge from the difficulty, however, that may even see the breakup of the commercial aerospace duopoly. Key to the success of these new sectors is the adoption of innovative manufacturing technologies to facilitate a new generation of airframes and step change in design and production efficiency.


Airborne [**]

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