How is aircraft manufacturing likely to change, and what will those changes mean for the suppliers making parts and equipment for the aircraft industry?
Those questions lie at the heart of a unique two-day event that will return to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago this September. The TRAM conference—sponsored by Boeing—addresses Trends in Advanced Machining, Manufacturing and Materials for the aerospace industry.
When the conference debuted in 2012, it drew attendees from 15 countries and more than 100 companies focused on aerospace production. This year, the conference will again take place at IMTS, September 10-11. Modern Machine Shop is one of the event’s organizers, along with the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and AMT–the Association For Manufacturing Technology. Speakers scheduled to appear this year include representatives of Boeing and Airbus, plus GE Aviation, Fokker Aerostructures, Messier-Dowty Ltd. and Spirit AeroSystems.
DOUBLING OF DEMAND
One of those speakers is Colin Sirett, head of research and technology for Airbus in the UK. He offers a view of why the aircraft industry will continue to be such a compelling sector of manufacturing. World demographics tell the story, he says. The planet has 7 billion people, but still only 1 billion of them have access to air travel. As wealth increases in various parts of the world, many more people will obtain this access. Air travel demand is projected to double in the next 20 years.
“How will aircraft manufacturers achieve the production ramp-up needed to meet this demand?” he asks. “It can’t be by just doing more of the same.”
Part of the reason why it can’t be more of the same is because past advances in manufacturing have been so successful. Though there is still room for CNC machining to improve, technology and operational advances related to machining have now brought the cost of machining low enough that material cost and the overall time to manufacture have become more significant considerations by comparison. As a result, aircraft OEMs are increasingly turning their attention to ways they can use less material. This is a challenge that suggests near-net-shape processes, particularly additive manufacturing (the focus of a separate half-day event—see below). Aircraft OEMs will also increasingly turn their attention to reducing the time that manufacturing requires, largely because speeding production offers the best chance to increase manufacturing capacity. And these companies will certainly need more capacity.
Fortunately, there is low-hanging fruit, Mr. Sirett says. Dynamic analysis in milling is one example. The technique of adjusting spindle speeds in milling to achieve high metal removal rates by quieting chatter has been known since the 1970s, yet very few machine shops are taking advantage of this possibility. Many more of them should take advantage of it, he says. He guesses there is 20 percent latent capacity just waiting to be achieved through methodology improvements on current suppliers’ existing CNC machines, even before any new capital investment is made.
Meanwhile, the market demand alone is not the only factor to consider, because the growth of this demand cannot be unconstrained, he says. The aerospace industry has a social responsibility to reduce its environmental impact. Fortunately, the aim of reducing environmentally harmful emissions aligns with the goal of reducing aircraft operating cost, because both aims can be achieved by making planes that burn less fuel. Mr. Sirett’s presentation at TRAM will consider all of this.
He says, “The question I hope to explore is how we can reduce the cost of operation for the airlines while at the same time enabling all parties in the supply chain to generate double-digit returns for their stakeholders.”
A TRAM keynote speaker will be Peter Hoffman, Boeing vice president for intellectual property management. Attention to intellectual property has become increasingly important for Boeing’s manufacturing success in recent years, he says, as the company has increasingly entered into innovation relationships with outside partners. Yet the nature of these partnerships leaves considerable room for improvement. Innovation is vital because new ideas in manufacturing will answer the need for expanded manufacturing capacity and higher-quality, more affordable, better-performing aircraft. However, the terms of his company’s agreements with partners often contribute to bottlenecks that slow innovation down. Many of the issues that impede the speed of manufacturing innovation can be attributed to, in his words, “the awkwardness of the agreements that the parties enter into.”
It is a problem that can be fixed. Mr. Hoffman envisions a different model for Boeing and its innovation partners, and he hopes to begin a discussion about this by means of his presentation at TRAM.
Part of the problem is the lack of a sustainable, long-term incentive for Boeing’s partners, he says. If Boeing too tightly locks down its intellectual property control, the resulting exclusivity can be counter-productive. Technology will advance faster when partners have more opportunities to take the new manufacturing innovations to the broader market.
He says much of Boeing’s own intellectual property investment in a manufacturing innovation consists of the proof of principle demonstration, followed by the challenge of transitioning into production and realizing a hardened and predictable system. That is, Boeing’s investment focuses on the conception, early development and first experiences with a technology. Therefore, Mr. Hoffman envisions an arrangement in which Boeing has exclusive access only to the newest version of an innovative product or process, leaving the innovation partner free to market the previous-generation version more broadly. Fleshing out the details and implications of a model based on this arrangement will be part of the subject of his talk.
In fact, he also aims to describe some of the challenges he sees to implementing such an arrangement. Those challenges will somehow be overcome, he believes, perhaps because of the input of a potential partner who hears and responds to his talk at TRAM.
The communication is what is important. “We need to be more thoughtful and deliberate about sharing and maturing intellectual property in partnerships,” he says. In the case of every joint innovation, this will involve both parties laying out a vision of where they want to be as partners once their idea has matured through 5, 10 or 20 years, and what success looks like to each party.
“Boeing can’t succeed alone,” Mr. Hoffman stresses. The aircraft OEMs face such large order backlogs today that the need to advance manufacturing capability surpasses what any company can achieve on its own.
At the same time, those multi-year backlogs also provide the reason for real optimism and confidence.
“We still have a cyclical industry, but our ability to weather a downturn is greater than it has ever been,” he says. He looks forward to engaging the TRAM audience about the bright future that the people and companies engaged in this industry are likely to share.