The future of aerospace manufacturing is digital

At the Paris Air Show recently, a host of aircraft deals were announced which are set to contribute a massive £35 billion to the global economy, and £3.3 billion to the UK alone.

This is positive news for the aerospace industry, which has already undergone significant growth, with analysts forecasting further global growth of 5.1% over the next decade.

The sector has had to make cutbacks in recent years however, which have raised concerns over whether aerospace manufacturing businesses are ready and able to make the most of this upturn in demand.

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Skills shortage

By way of example, recent studies have shown that the aerospace sector is currently experiencing a shortage of skilled manpower.

There is concern that the average age of workers in the sector has dramatically increased whilst, at the same time, the education system is not producing the next generation of skilled workers. To compound this, there is less excitement or desire today to work in aerospace engineering – which was once perceived as a high-profile, showcase industry.

According to a recent report, three in five employers (59%) in the aerospace industry are concerned that a scarcity of skilled engineers could pose a threat to their business in the future.

The report also revealed that a third of engineering vacancies (32%) are considered ‘hard to fill’; around twice the national average. In addition, almost half of engineering businesses (48.3%) suggested that issues around recruitment had caused delays in developing new products, and had increased operating costs.

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The tangible effects of this skills shortage are likely to be felt well into the future if the deep-rooted-issues around engineering education aren’t addressed, with Engineering UK’s annual report suggesting that 56,000 engineering technicians will be required every year until 2024, just to keep up with demand.

Digital transformation

The advent of Industry 4.0 has seen significant modernisation across the manufacturing sector as a whole, as businesses introduce a range of digital manufacturing processes. While the move towards digitisation may not be the overarching solution to the manpower challenges faced by the industry, the demand for more software and hardware engineers to operate these processes may certainly help to attract more talent into the industry.

3D printing, for example, is a particularly exciting technology which, even three decades into its existence, still continues to evolve. Product developers across a range of industries are utilising 3D printing to rapidly produce high-quality prototypes suitable for presentations and assembly tests.

In the automotive industry, for example, entire cars can be produced using the technique. However, while 3D printing can also be used to build production-ready parts, only a small number of companies are taking advantage of this method of production at present.

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For the aerospace industry, where the requirements fluctuate significantly from business to business, 3D printing can assist by enabling the production of single components through to production-ready parts. What’s more, this capability can reduce the amount of administration previously experienced in aerospace R&D and increase the effectiveness of a manufacturer.

Advancements in 3D printing are already delivering tangible benefits to aeronautical manufacturers as a means of reducing material and labour costs, enabling them to test small parts and components such as those critical to the construction of engines and landing gear.

Breaking through

Achieving the projected growth will require an increased focus on innovations that allow for greater customisation, as well as improved longevity and cost reduction, without having to compromise on comfort or safety. Businesses face a need to find new means of reducing weight, cutting down on emissions, and increasing cargo and cabin capacity.

What’s more, the entire industry is being shaped by customer demand, with an increasing expectation for rapidly produced parts to be made readily available within a matter of days.

To support its complex supply chain, the aerospace industry can utilise digital manufacturing processes to benefit from acceleration in production processes, including increased efficiencies, and greater cost savings.

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Advancements in rapid prototyping and on-demand production capabilities have revolutionised the mind-set of product developers. The ability to quickly and cheaply deliver the necessary parts has made the development cycle significantly smoother, for example. Being able to physically hold production-quality parts faster than ever before has proven to be a catalyst for certification and testing processes.

Many businesses within the aeronautical industry are already considering new manufacturing techniques and technologies that will help them meet demands for greater efficiency and innovation while, at the same time, work within ever tighter budgets.

Ultimately, the latest developments in on-demand production capabilities, coupled with a range of advanced manufacturing technologies, offer aerospace manufacturers the time and budget saving options they need.

Adapting the traditional supply chain, and embracing the latest digital manufacturing and prototyping services, will support the expansion in aerospace predicted over the next decade and beyond.


Sourced by Stephen Dyson, head of Industry 4.0, Proto Labs


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...