In my first blog I talked about the conversion costs of composites in Aerospace: why these are still way too high and why that is a problem. It was interesting to see how this message was received and how people responded. Of course, the subject was inspired by the Farnborough International Airshow at the time, but the key message is that we have been enhancing the product performance regardless of affordability. And that is what we need to do: radically improve the price/performance balance. Otherwise composites have no ground to compete. I firmly believe we need to look at automation and digitalisation for the answers. These will be instrumental to disrupt our industry business models and drastically shorten the supply chain of composites parts production.
Why do I believe in the need and possibility to disrupt our industry? Let’s go back in time again. After graduating in 1995, I founded Airborne Development with one of my best student pals Marco Brinkman. We started as a small engineering consultancy firm on composites production. We designed a conceptual composite product for the oil and gas industry which became the thermoplastic composite pipe, to be used at water depths of 3,000 meters. However, we soon learned that the real challenge was not so much in the product itself, but in the processes and machinery to produce large volumes of composites at high quality and at an affordable price level. In order to make the product a success we had to develop and build fully automated manufacturing lines.
Everybody said it couldn’t be done. Well … Until today Airborne Oil & Gas is the first and the leading company in the world to deliver these pipes.
What we learned: anything is possible
There were lots of things we learned from our first company. First of all, we found out that automating composites manufacturing at an industrial scale is in fact possible. But secondly, to be successful you need to radically change the way you think about composites production. We were able to develop and implement thermoplastic composite pipes with substantially lower total installed costs. And most importantly, we learned anything is possible: lots of people argued we couldn’t do it because of the heavy regulations, safety procedures and tremendous challenges deep sea has to offer, but hey! We tried. We succeeded.
So, with our revolutionary idea for large scale production of affordable high quality composite pipes for the Oil & Gas market, we showed it is possible to create new solutions and think beyond given restrictions of qualification rules and regulations. We worked with the industry and the regulating bodies and proved that radically new technologies can be implemented even in the harshest and most certified environments. Believe it or not, but the similarities with the aerospace are larger than the differences. That’s why we say: conversion costs in the aerospace supply chain can go down too. And they will: Fast, hard and pretty soon.
However, we need to realise that the changes required to achieve this will first materialise in industries that do not have an extensive composites legacy and installed base.
Setting the standard for digital production of composites
In markets such as consumer electronics, automotive, mass transportation, etcetera, the need for high performance components is remarkably similar to the aerospace. The allowable cost levels however are an order of magnitude lower. As a result composites materials do not find their way yet into these markets, which we need to consider a huge advantage today: with the lack of installed base and products, we can set the standard for digital production of composites. Riding the wave of robotics, digital production platforms and a growing interest from the material science community for composites: connecting these dots will result in a new generation of end to end production systems, enabling mass introduction of composites in markets, which are currently beyond our reach.
And it’s not just our dream for the far future: We see a growing need for speed. To answer the challenges of today’s world, advanced composites need to become significantly more affordable fast as this has become pressing throughout all sorts of high-tech industries. Circling back to aerospace; it is not just the new markets that need this. Inevitably Aerospace will have to move in the same direction as the new markets. In the space industry we already see this happening. My colleague Sandor Woldendorp wrote some interesting insights on the developments in the Space market. The need to have composites at the price of mass production is growing fast in all markets, both the established and the new markets. And they want us to deliver tomorrow as their competition levels are rising fast.
What kind of partners can help us?
But how can we achieve this ambition? I don’t believe we are able to do that all by ourselves; we need partners and other industries to help us to implement new and radical solutions. And remember, what looks radical to the composites world can be day to day standard in other industries already. In my opinion, we need to create a platform with automation and digitalization building blocks. We need to borrow and where necessary adapt as many technologies from other industries as possible to create building blocks. Building blocks that we connect to become flexible, affordable and scalable production platforms.
Transforming the composite production process therefore requires a value chain for which the right expertise and size are not yet available within the composites community itself. That’s why we need to look at other industries and supply chains partners to accelerate our developments and bring them into our world. For example, for our platforms we found solutions for ply handling in the paper industry, solutions for cutting and material handling from the textile industry and carrier tracks from palletizing logistics.
Let’s create a Composites Client Portal!
Let’s be even more radical: Can we have composites parts developed, designed and produced in a day, based on one-of-a-kind specification? Can we sell them like a custom-made yet affordable item? Would it be possible, using a Digital Twin, to automatically generate a production scheme without any flaws and with a 100% accuracy of the result?
How about uploading your design and buying it at our client portal? I like the example of 247 tailor steel where clients can order custom-cut metal sheets, tubes and bent products easily and quickly, using an online tool based upon artificial intelligence to direct their production and logistics. Yes, it’s steel, okay … But the idea is clear, right? Could we use these examples to really move our industry into the digital century?
Get off that high horse: Becoming client centric
I think we need more automation and digitalisation to achieve affordable, large scale but customized “batch size one” type composites production. And most of all: Getting off our high horses. We could try to be extremely radical and aim to meet our customers’ demands instead of being product centric. Putting the client first: that will force us to look at new, radical solutions in order to help them compete and add true value to their business models.
So, what do you think?
Total crap? Totally right? What do you think? Looking forward to your responses.
And of course: we are at Composites Europe next week, should you like to discuss your ideas in person!
This blog was published on Linkedin as well – please visit Arno van Mourik’s Linkedin Profile to connect.