This week we, Airborne, will join the Farnborough International Airshow (FIA) 2018 again. Our theme this year is “Shaping the aerospace value chain of tomorrow”. For those of you who are familiar with our story, at Airborne we firmly believe in automating the composite production as key to reduce costs and time to market. But because of all protocols, automating the total production process of an airplane today just isn’t possible. Or is it?
When I left university some time ago (well, let’s be honest, it’s been more than 2 decades …) composites were the bomb. We were getting high on stuff like 3D fibre architecture and the most complex assemblies. Quality and weight were the drivers for aerospace (and still are) while costs just did not seem too much of an issue.
Composites: the wonder material for aerospace
Or at least the overall opinion was that the Total Costs of Ownership would justify high component prices. This is how the “non industrial” cost structure of composite production got accepted. So, despite its artisan character, carbon fibre composites became the wonder material for the aerospace industry . As a student we understood this excitement completely; comparing metal or aluminium to composites is like comparing a computer Commodore 64 to a smart phone. It’s that different and has substantial qualities that still aren’t met by other materials.
Fibres and resins: still a difficult challenge
There is (of course!) one BUT: costs. Composites are not that simple to produce at industrial scale. Even though fibre reinforced composites actually consist of ‘just’ fibres and resin, the amount of production parameters throughout the chain is sky-high. Even now, most important parts for certified industries such as aeronautics, are still produced relatively manually, relying on experience and skill of the workers. There are two important reasons. Our CTO Marcus Kremers wrote a nice piece about the fact that humans are still better at producing composite parts than any robot in the world, and why. That’s one reason. A second is the current rules and quality regulations in aerospace do not allow all steps in the production processes to be automated without tremendous recertification costs, this hurdle is simply too high.
Run before we could walk
Actually, I think the main reason why automating composites production processes is still in its infancy, is because we, the composite manufacturing industry, started running before we could walk. All other industries are already in a phase where they started optimising their processes. But as costs were not a dominating factor in our relatively new industry, we first focused on optimising our products for structural performance. So, we started to develop large amounts of composites without the availability of efficient production processes and the corresponding design requirements based upon basic industrialisation principles.
Automating small to medium parts
Didn’t we automate anything at all? Well, it’s not that dramatic. Automation in composite part manufacturing is not a completely new thing, but it is predominantly embraced for very large parts, such as automated tape laying of wing skins. At Airborne, we want to make a difference in the aerospace industry by re-defining composite manufacturing of small to medium parts while staying as much as possible within the existing certification boundaries. The maximum part sizes will be 3m wide and 8-10m long, which allows the whole part to be moved and processed by a robotic line. With our automation solutions like Kitting and Sorting, Laminating and Honeycomb Potting we target to save 20-30% of costs for conventional aeronautic parts in the small-to-medium size range.
Let’s find impressive cost savings
These cost savings of 20% to 30% for conventional long term production programmes in the aerospace are already interesting as costs are an increasing issue for the this industry. But then there is also the even more radical potential of full end to end automation and ultimately digitalisation. When we look at the developments in other parallel markets, we see the implementation of combined non-composites and composites automation technologies, the unlocking of big data in these processes and integration of the value chain. All at the same time. Projecting these developments in non-aerospace markets, I also see impressive cost saving potential: Conversion costs decreasing from a factor 20 to a factor 5 or below, while maintaining quality and performance.
Gap between aerospace versus non aerospace will increase
I am quite certain the friction between the parallel worlds, aerospace versus non aerospace, will grow. However since the implementation of radical end to end technologies in the aerospace require a change in current qualification protocols, the first steps in aerospace will be those of automation of the conventional processes. Many of us think that this will be a process of years and years to come. Given the understandable conservative nature of the aerospace industry I too believe that this could be the case. At the same time, fast improvements in other industries will also become available for aerospace, providing disruptive potential to make really discrete step changes in conversion cost efficiency. What would happen if we are able to unlock these potentials also for the aerospace within just a few years?
So, what’s your opinion: What will be possible when the aerospace value chain is challenged because of extreme cost savings?