Kicking off the Aerospace Forum at the recent Advanced Engineering show, held at the Birmingham NEC in November, digital manufacturer Protolabs hosted a roundtable on innovation in the aerospace manufacturing sector.
Alex Edwards from Protolabs was joined by Harry Malins, chief innovation officer at the Aerospace Technology Institute and Piers Tomlinson, editorial director at FT Longitude. The discussion centred around Protolabs’ recent research, based on a survey of 150 manufacturers in the aerospace sector.
Drivers of innovation
Tomlinson opened by describing how the challenges created by sustainability goals and supply chain disruption have created a sense of urgency and a need to innovate in the aerospace sector. Respondents in the study ranked the need to develop new products and services as the top driver of innovation, with sustainability perhaps surprisingly coming further down the list.
Malins gave his perspective on this: “If you drill down into those answers you’ll probably find those products and services are aimed at enabling sustainability,” he said. “Aerospace is going through a major transformation: the industry needs to reach net zero by 2050 and it’s a hard to decarbonise sector, so there’s a lot of work going into the development of new products that will decarbonise flying, whether those are zero carbon technologies, hydrogen, or ultra efficient technologies that improve the efficiency of aircraft.”
The study also examined the impact of the skills gap, with 53% of aerospace manufacturers saying they were struggling to retain their most innovative employees.
Tomlinson elaborated: “It’s an issue that we’ve seen across many sectors, With businesses saying that they’ve invested in technology and business processes but they’re struggling to create value because of the talent flight.”
Malins agreed: “Talent is more mobile than before, but aerospace is a very exciting sector to work in and there are now more opportunities to innovate than there have been for many years. People like the idea of coming into the sector and innovating around sustainability, and new propositions like advanced air mobility are also generating excitement.”
Considerations for a four-day week
A much discussed theme in business across industries with regards to attracting and retaining staff is flexible working and a four-day working week. In manufacturing, this debate has introduced an interesting inconsistency, as Tomlinson explained:
“Around half of manufacturers are saying retention is a massive issue, and they understand that employees want flexibility and a good work life balance. But when it comes to innovation sprints, businesses want people in five days a week.”
Malins added: “A balance is needed between retention and employee satisfaction, and innovation. Being together in a room is beneficial to innovation. Dynamics in manufacturing suggest that people need more time onsite. The key is to use time working together in a facility effectively. Perhaps focus on tasks that can be done virtually when working from home and use the time on site for workshops and creative collaboration.”
Addressing supply chain issues
Supply chain disruption was cited in the study as a having a major impact on innovation, as Tomlinson stated: “The big story in recent years has been the pandemic, but recent geopolitical tension globally has led to greater uncertainty about supply routes and energy sources.”
Malins expanded: “Coming out of Covid, much of the supply chain suffered a really severe shock. Now we’re getting into this growth phase at the same time that there’s major disruption. We’re seeing pressure on vulnerable suppliers, and there’s perhaps not the right level of coordination across the sector to address the problem.
“People want to innovate to improve the supply chain, but there is a perception of risk to doing that, with businesses thinking will that disrupt my ability to deliver for customers?”
Tomlinson addressed this by saying: “The essence of innovation is how you turn risk into opportunity. How long do you make changes for, when you don’t know how long a situation will last? Friend-shoring [the act of manufacturing and sourcing from countries that are geopolitical allies] as a solution is part of bigger trend we are seeing across industries, but one of the challenges is that we have digital and physical supply chains, which makes it a much more complicated question than a few years ago.”
Malins concluded: “Businesses within aerospace want to build resilience into their supply chain, but it’s not always possible to friend shore; a lot of critical minerals and materials are difficult to access from friendly countries. So as well as considering friend shoring, an interesting area is vertical consolidation. Where businesses are concerned about elements of their supply chain, they may be looking to bring that capability back in house. Particularly as you get into transformation, with new, emerging technologies such as hydrogen, an organisation may want to have more control over the supply chain, and the level of quality and capability. To bring that certainty, you often find relatively vertically integrated businesses in an emerging market.”
Open to change
Despite, and also because of the challenges the aerospace industry is facing, it is a particularly innovative sector. However, it is clear from Protolabs’ study and the ensuing discussion at Advanced Engineering 2023, that businesses must build resilience and be open to change in the face of volatile supply chains, new technologies, rigorous sustainability objectives and an evolving workforce.