The Future of Aerospace Manufacturing: Key Trends

The aerospace sector has long been a hub of innovation, but it seems we’re witnessing an exceptionally revolutionary time for air travel. Let’s take a look what’s on the horizon for the industry. 

 

3D Printing

We’re confident 3D printing will play a major role in aerospace manufacturing in coming years because it already is! Indeed, 3D printers aren’t a Jetsons-esque appliance of the future, but very much a reality for the aerospace industry already.  As we wrote about back in May, 3D printing isn’t just the future—it’s the present.

In addition to part manufacturing, 3D printing—or additive layer manufacturing (ALM) as it’s known in the biz—is also transforming the concept, design and testing stages. As Lockheed Martin’s chief technology officer, Keoki Jackson, told Aviation Week,

“We are starting to do our designs as full 3-D models from the beginning to the end of the life cycle. We’re going from concept and requirements to architecture, through design in 3-D models with physics-based simulations wrapped around them, to the manufacturing and integration tests and ultimately sustainment in the field, all living within that virtual environment.”

 

Composites

Increasingly, manufacturers are favoring composite materials over traditional aluminium alloys for major structural elements of their aircraft. Advanced composites, such as carbon laminate and carbon sandwich, are lightweight, stronger than traditional metals, corrosion resistant, highly durable and easy to mold into desired shapes. Using composites also allows manufacturers to consolidate many parts down to a single structure, reducing build and maintenance costs.

A leading proponent of composite materials, Boeing recently unveiled its $1 billion 777x Composite Wing Center in Everett, WA. The wing factory, which opened in May 2016, uses automated machines to construct the wings—layer by layer—out of carbon fiber infused with epoxy resin.

 

Biofuels

Global demand for greener air travel and ever-fluctuating oil prices have inspired several major airlines to invest in alternative fuels. Lufthansa, Ryanair, easy Jet, Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand and Continental are just some of the airlines that are actively pursuing biofuels.

In March, United Airlines began using biofuel to power flights from L.A. to San Francisco, with plans to eventually expand usage to all its flights out of LAX. In a press release about the launch, United’s director of environmental affairs and sustainability, Angela Foster-Rice, commented on the significance of the initiative:

"Today's historic launch of regularly scheduled service utilizing advanced biofuels represents a major next step in our ongoing commitment to operate sustainably and responsibly.”

 

Communications software

Two major aspects of aircraft technology set to improve in the coming years are aircraft to ground communication and craft-to-craft communication.

The first, improved communication with ground control, will come from a better understanding of the aircraft’s position in the sky. Currently, airplanes make their descent in a step-by-step fashion, at set intervals based on altitude. However, as improved communication software allows air traffic controllers to view a plane’s exact position at all times, landings can be a smoother, continuous and more efficient process.

The second, improved craft-to-craft communication, will allow multiple aircraft—including automated, pilotless machines—to talk to each other at all times. For defense and surveillance purposes, this will allow multiple drones to work together, offering strength in numbers while simultaneously avoiding collisions. For a better understanding of how this swarm technology works, check out this recent video from the U.S. Air Force:


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Featured image: Disassembled carbon fiber fuselage section of the Boeing Dreamliner 787 in Everett, Washington.
Photo by: Christopher Boffoli