The future of public transportation will be airborne. Fast urbanisation and the emergence of new mega cities requires disruptive urban mobility solutions to facilitate thousands of daily commutes. OEMs and startups alike are racing the clock to launch the first electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft by 2025. In other words: personal air transportation for up to 8 passengers that can set off and land from predefined locations or ‘skyports’. What does the industry need to make eVTOL travel successful within the next 5 years?
Realising aerial ridesharing at scale
Maybe you’ve heard about Urban Air Mobility (or UAM), maybe you have not. The main industry drivers, OEMs and startups, are aiming to realise shared air transport between suburbs and (within) cities as early as 2025, with Uber being the most aggressive player aiming for 2023. The companies are currently in the development stage, testing full scale prototypes that will be showcased by 2020. After which another 3 to 5 years is needed for product improvement, certification and infrastructure development to be fully operational by 2025.
But to realise aerial ridesharing at scale, the market must fast-track the production of lightweight and high-quality aircraft structures without compromising on safety. The biggest bottleneck is the current length of development cycles: coming up with a concept, analysing the structure, prototyping and testing takes years. One reason is that many engineering hours go into the manual manufacturing. Another reason is having to comply with strict certification regulations. So, how can eVTOL manufacturers speed up their design, manufacturing and certification processes?
Who are the competitors?
The competition to be the first-to-market is fierce. Incumbents (OEMs) and newcomers (startups) are competing to develop the required technology. Companies such as Airbus, Embraer and Boeing know that their innovation ecosystem is too slow for this phase, so they have set up new, innovation focused divisions, or sister companies. to accelerate development . The other players are dynamic startups that have received significant venture capital funding, as also seen in the NewSpace and e-car industries.
Evolving the supply chain
In my view, there are two types of supply chains: the one you need to win the race and “get there first” and the supply chain you’ll need once you have an established product.
The first phase requires a vertically integrated supply chain. Incumbent aerospace OEMs who are active in this field and newcomers alike, are bringing all major production steps in-house or work with a very small portfolio of key partners under exclusivity contracts. If you are a specialised company, for instance creating electric motors or composites parts, here lies a great opportunity for collaboration!
Once the product is on the market, the supply chain can mature. I expect the same transition as in the automotive and aerospace industries, where production will be outsourced to a handful of specialised and efficient suppliers. Again, here lie opportunities for companies that offer specialised solutions or processes at scale to work together in an integrated way.
Time to speed up
Then there is the need to speed up the process. I strongly believe automation is the key. It is a great opportunity to think of automation not just in terms of machines making parts, but also automation in the development cycles. By identifying the process characteristics and limitations upfront, you can build those in the design from an early stage, thus reducing the number of times your product goes through the cycle.
When it comes to composites structures, today, prototypes are mostly still produced manually due to their low volume. And when volumes are low, costs are high. Luckily, there are already proven solutions that can speed up the production and make automation viable for a one-off product. This not only speeds up the design and development cycle, but ensures that the prototype is made with the technology that will be used for the actual production. This results in reduced flaws, risks and costs, while increasing in-house knowledge and expertise.
Scaling up: what you need
Adopt mass production technologies
In the aerospace industry the quality is very high, but volumes low. In the automotive industry the volume is high, but the quality can be lower. The UAM industry needs both: high volume and high quality. Scaling up production without compromising on quality, can only be achieved by adopting mass production technologies.
Use proven technologies to reduce risks
Because companies in the UAM industry are working with such tight timeframes, taking additional big risks is out of the question. By identifying and implementing the current best practices and technologies in the aerospace and automotive sectors, innovation is within reach.
Design for automation
To adopt mass production from the beginning, compromises have to be made in the design so structures and components are suitable for automation in a simple and cost-effective way. To fast-track this design process, companies can work with specialised partners that already have the existing capabilities, skills and facilities.
Eye on the price: affordable top notch aircraft
Looking at current design proposals such as Uber’s eCRM-models, many are for relatively small aircraft. This means that manual layup and other manual manufacturing processes are technically possible. For relatively small product volumes, production rates can (almost) always be achieved with a larger workforce, but not if cost matters!
What if I told you that one flexible and integrated machine can have multiple parts going through it by deploying multiple processes to create aerostructure components?
This means that right from the start the machine is fully utilised. As volumes increase and production becomes more steady, you can start automating more steps so you eventually operate in a fully automated and digitalised way. And that is when the fun really begins, because you then can focus on more specific technologies for each component. Multiple specialised suppliers can create volume together and really use the best technologies for each part to achieve top notch quality that is also affordable.
What are your thoughts on the role of automation in enabling eVOTL?
Which technologies do you think will be needed in this industry? Let us know what you think!
‘Manufacture top-notch quality aircraft components and structures fast and affordable‘