The past, present and future

Aziz Tahiri, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence’s vice-president of Global Aerospace and Defence looks at the past, present and future of aerospace manufacturing.

Looking back, I would say that until very recently, the industry’s approach to aircraft design and production has changed very little over the past 20 or so years.

For as long as I can remember the conventional, and majority, of aircraft have been of a very rigid architecture – one body and two wings – and the level of output has increased slowly and steadily. While that is to a certain extent the sign of a successful industry, I think it is becoming quite clear that we’re due a shake-up.

Compared to other vertical sectors, this lower total volume and variety of products has resulted in it being far slower to adopt automation practices than other industries, relying instead on a high degree of human labour. But this is not scalable, and current predictions suggest that if the industry is to keep with consumer demand, it needs to double in the next 20 years.

At Hexagon, our tech touches 90% of all aircraft produced around the world, and as such, I’ve had the privilege to support engineers and innovators from within our company as well as our customer bases as they start looking towards new shapes, processes, tools and architectures to help meet this demand. There are many different paths the industry could take in the next two decades, but what I do know for certain is that the future is digital, the future is automated, the future is made of agility, and the future is green. There is a digital technology revolution ongoing in all other manufacturing sectors, and aerospace needs to get involved and reap the financial and sustainability rewards.

Digital twins, for example, are an exciting area that I think will help underpin that growth. Digital twins represent virtual representations of physical entities that can be tested, prototyped and iterated at very low running costs and with high degrees of accuracy. Designing a new aircraft can cost up to $10 billion over a period of 5–8 years, with 1,000 units needing to be sold just to break even, but with virtual technologies we can slash these costs and times significantly, making more efficient, comfortable and sustainable aircraft more quickly and with better RoI.

Material innovation is also in its nascence, with alloys and titanium having dominated since the industry started, but this is an area crucial to both growth and regulation compliance. Fuel currently represents 50% of an aircraft’s operating costs, and the repercussions of this on the environment are not to be ignored. I’m seeing the lightweighting benefits of composites slowly revealing themselves through innovation and design optimisation. The latest Boeing 787 aircraft are already 90% composites and have been around for over 10 years, but they still only represent 20% of the market – I think if there were a trend that is most likely to take hold most quickly, it will be this one.

One of the most exciting areas for me currently is eVTOL, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. It is the fastest growing subsection of aerospace, expanding five times faster than traditional commercial aviation, defence, rotor craft and space. Many start-ups are looking to develop their own airtaxis using eVTOL technology, and like the car changed the fabric of urban living in the early 20th century, I think eVTOL will alter how we view and use public and personal transport over the next 20 years.

Whatever the future of aerospace holds, I know that digitalisation and smart manufacturing technology will play a central role. Whether this is underpinned by hydrogen-fuelled delta-shaped jet planes, or inner-city commuting dominated by vertical take-off air taxis, I know that I am looking forward to seeing what the next generation of pioneering engineers will produce when facilitated by advanced design and manufacturing tech.

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