Aerospace manufacturing: what are the key trends you need to be aware of?

Bart Simpson, business development lead at Delcam, looks at what could lie in store for the future of aircraft manufacturing.

Not since the industrial revolution has the manufacturing industry faced the kind of disruption it is seeing at the moment. As a result of changing customer habits, combined with massive leaps in computing power and connected devices, we are seeing completely new ways to design and build everything and anything. Across the manufacturing spectrum, everyone has access to this technology, and the impact of not adopting these technologies is increasing.

Nowhere is this more evident than in aerospace manufacturing, where the benefits to be gained from adopting new manufacturing and design techniques are huge. But with so many options out there, what are the main areas of disruption the aerospace manufacturing industry should be focused on? Below are three of the biggest innovations in manufacturing, from design to assembly, which showcase the opportunities for the aerospace manufacturing industry.

Generative design

As a sector, aerospace is particularly concerned with the performance of the parts being produced. Not just from a safety point of view, but also with efficiency in mind. The lighter a part, the less fuel an aircraft uses, and this is of paramount importance with fuel being the main cost of aircraft operation. As a result, investing more in the design and manufacturing processes to ensure the aircraft is as efficient as possible is essential to the aerospace manufacturing industry.

This is where the next generation of design technology comes into play – generative design. Thanks to advances in design software and computing, software can now design the optimal part based on the parameters of how the part needs to perform. For example, you can specify the loads a new bracket has to withstand during aircraft operation, and then the software can optimise the bracket’s design based on this.

This can provide a set of design solutions, which are inherently different to traditional shapes, and these can act as drivers in the overall design process. What the industry has seen over the years is parts being designed to match the manufacturing processes available at the time, and generative design is another example of this. As the industry starts to get behind generative design, we’ll see the next generation of aircraft parts starting to take shape.

Hybrid Manufacturing

Of course, new shapes require new manufacturing processes, and this is where additive manufacturing comes into its own, as it enables the complex geometries that are typical of generative design to be created more easily than traditional methods. However, this is only part of the story, as additive manufacturing is not always the best manufacturing process for some designs. Taking a simple example, it is much more efficient and more accurate to create a hole in something with a drill than with additive manufacturing.

At the same time, subtractive manufacturing can be incredibly wasteful, with large amounts of the original material being discarded in order to get to the finished shape from a block of an expensive material like titanium. By combining the two processes in a hybrid approach, the aerospace manufacturing industry can take advantage of the best of both techniques. For example, a part can be made by using additive techniques to create a near-net shape, and then using subtractive methods to turn this into the final product. In this way, less material is wasted, and the ultimate shape is something that couldn’t be created as efficiently with either technique on its own.   

Robotics

Traditionally, robots in the manufacturing process have been used to do a limited range of repetitive tasks, mainly in handling materials and components. While this is now well established on large scale production lines, we’re now at a point where robots are capable of so much more. In particular, we can connect robots to a broad range of sensors, which allows them to capture information about the parts they’re working on. This data can then be fed back to the control system, which can then make adjustments to the robot’s operation and drive greater efficiencies during the process.

A great example of where robotics can revolutionise the manufacturing process is by replacing laborious, time intensive tasks that require a manual worker’s eye for detail, such as polishing and finishing. Human beings are naturally good at the kind of feedback loop necessary for getting a smooth surface, but there are limitations in the accuracy of all manual operations and there are increasing health and safety considerations over these repetitive tasks.  New software developments mean that robots can now do many these tasks. By visually scanning a part they can more consistently detect blemishes and surface defects, and accurately measure, for example, how much polishing the surface needs and where it is required.

What makes robots even more useful for the manufacturing sector is that now it is also possible to generate a modified set of instructions for the robot for each part it has to work on. Thanks to the computing power and automated systems now available, these instructions can be done on the fly, based on the feedback data being collected by the robot. This approach has massive potential for improving the productivity of the robot and the quality and consistency of the parts being produced.

The Future of Making Aircraft?

Rising demand for air travel has created a massive opportunity for every company in the aircraft manufacturing supply chain, and there has never been a time when so much disruptive technology has been at its finger tips. At the same time, it can be difficult to know where to start.

Rather than trying to change everything at once, take a look at your whole manufacturing process, from design to manufacture, and work out where a small change, whether a different approach to design or increased automation, can have the most impact. Given the aerospace manufacturing sector’s focus on manufacturing productivity and ensuring its parts are as efficient as possible, even the smallest step towards the future of making things can have a massive impact.