With over 40 years’ experience, John Stretton, director of aerospace, defence and security at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), examines the latest trends in aerospace manufacturing, including how industry is responding to supply chain and skills shortage challenges to meet the needs of end-users.
Airlines are continually looking for new ways to expand their offering and build customer satisfaction, from carrying more cargo to increasing service levels and allowing more people per flight. All of which hinges on innovative manufacturing to transform aircraft and improve processes for their maintenance.
Traditionally, airline businesses rely on high levels of inventory to keep services running, which impose increased costs and is inefficient in the long term. Additive manufacturing (AM) can deliver quick and innovative solutions to minimise disruption and costly downtime. Looking at the aerospace sector, the key benefits of AM include:
Reduced lead-times: The technology uses designs that can be repeated and easily adapted. The Meltio M450 3D printer, based at the MTC in Coventry, can process wire as well as powder. While printing with powder can only be done in specialised industrial environments, the additional ability to process wire means the machine could be adopted outside of dedicated manufacturing facilities. This could transform repair processes in aerospace manufacturing, with the small and mobile Meltio printer used to build spare parts, fix breakages or reinforce wear in-situ at military hangars.
Supply chain reliability: There is less reliance on import because components and parts can be produced closer to the point of use. In turn, the lifecycle of aerospace products, from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal can be more environmentally sustainable, especially if design for the environment strategies are applied during the design stage of products and components.
Optimised efficiency: The MTC is working with the ATI and commercial aerospace industry to explore how new generation metal powders, which have historically been difficult to process, can be used in AM to reduce weight whilst maintaining structural integrity. This technique offers greater repeatability and yield in the process, reducing the net cost of the part.
Plugging the skills gap
However, with the engineering and manufacturing sector experiencing acute skills shortages, the potential for innovation and transformation is under threat. In fact, Make UK states that 36% of vacancies in manufacturing are proving hard-to-fill as applicants lack the appropriate skills, qualifications or experience.
One potential solution to this challenge is the rise of automation and robotics, which have already started to transform aerospace manufacturing and is expected to play a significant role in shaping the industry's future.
While the need for skilled technicians to successfully operate and maintain these systems requires initial investment from manufacturers, one skilled worker can be responsible for monitoring multiple processes. Not only does automation help to solve labour shortage - as automation and robotics technology continues to advance, but its integration into the production process is also likely to lead to a more efficient, safe, and innovative aerospace manufacture industry:
Efficiency: Automated processes capture real-time data, which can be used to reduce labour costs, minimise waste, and optimise procedures, such as finding the best temperature range for adhesive and consistency of application for joining technologies.
Precision: Manufacturing for aerospace often involves intricate designs and complex assemblies. Automation consistently and reliably performs challenging tasks to deliver better quality products. Automation systems can also perform testing, inspection, and quality control to ensure only components meeting the highest standards are integrated into the final product. This will ensure longevity of products and safety of flight.
Safety: Aerospace manufacturing tasks often involve hazardous materials or environments. Automation eliminates and minimises the exposure of human workers to potentially harmful situations, enhancing workplace safety. The use of data also means that engineers can monitor equipment more closely and intervene to maintain robotic technology when the data suggests it needs improving rather than on regular basis.
It’s clear that automation and AM has a huge part to play in transforming the aerospace sector and the manufacturing industry as a whole. First and foremost, current challenges within the manufacturing industry, including skills shortages and supply chain issues, are being alleviated by automation and AM through increasing capacity and productivity. On top of this, the needs of aviation and airline organisations are being met through innovative product design, a reduction in lead-times and enhanced efficiency – all of which is helping to futureproof the sector.