As we look over the technology landscape, several innovative technologies are moving from concept into production as new aircraft and engine programs reach the market. Let’s take a look at those that will soon explode in volume and provide intriguing opportunities as they move from R&D to mainstream.
Big Data and Analytics
Virtually every new aircraft and engine program features “health management systems” that enable monitoring of a number of parameters and to predict when maintenance action might be required before an in-service failure. The benefits of these programs are promising, but require the OEMs to store and analyze petabytes of data to implement these predictive benefits.
This will require massive data storage facilities, new analytical software, and communications capabilities to alert operators around the world to potential problems. Almost every OEM has a control center with multiple computer monitors tracking their customers and equipment in service in real-time around the world. These are complex systems, with the massive investment required, to generate the benefits of data for their customers by reducing catastrophic maintenance events and minimizing schedule disruptions.
In the narrow-body world, the C Series and E2 Jets are farther advanced than the A320neo and 737 MAX families in this regard, while the 787 and A350 lead the charge in wide-body aircraft. In the engine side, GE’s Digital Twin concepts go beyond traditional health management and may be the most advanced application in its class.
Additive Manufacturing goes Mainstream
The new Advanced Turboprop Engine from GE has about 35% of its parts produced using additive manufacturing. The benefits of additive include the ability to create designs and shapes that would be difficult using conventional techniques, and lighter weight components. In the ATP, 855 individual parts are replaced with 12, reducing complexity and maintenance cost while providing improved performance.
At the same time, research and development into additive manufacturing technologies will result in faster processing to enable more rapid completion of complex parts, which are relatively slow to build today. Our projection is for a doubling of speed in 2018 and a redoubling of speeds in 2019 as refinements are made in these technologies.
Innovative technologies using titanium have resulted in Norsk Titanium building a specialized facility in upstate New York to produce additively manufactured components from titanium in a unique, hybrid process. Their 787 parts can be ordered one day and shipped overnight the next to a customer, perhaps a precursor to the next generation MRO facility that will have high-speed 3D printing capabilities instead of racks of parts inventories.
Out of Autoclave Composite Materials Streamline Manufacturing
The composite materials utilized for most aircraft today are thermoset pre-pregs that require “baking” in a pressurized autoclave to “set” the polymers to form strong but lightweight structures. Today, the second generation of composites is emerging, with materials that can be produced “out of autoclave” and do not need a pressurized high-temperature manufacturing process. Speeding the manufacturing process, at lower energy costs, is viewed favorably by aircraft OEMs, who are looking closely at alternative materials We see the industry gradually moving away from traditional thermoset materials to thermoplastic materials that include PEEK and PEKK materials, and to lower cost thermoset pre-preg materials. While this transition will not be complete until the next generation of aircraft is introduced, those new materials are being tested and evaluated today for future programs.
CMCs are a unique set of composite materials that are formulated with silicon chemistries and have unique high-temperature applications in aircraft engines. GE is utilizing CMCs in the LEAP engine, which requires a massive ramp-up of CMC production for the first high volume civil application. With the same weight and strength benefits of composites over metal, plus an additional 400 degrees in temperature resistance, these components will prove valuable as future aircraft engines increase pressure ratios and operating temperatures.
Advanced Avionics for Autonomous Aircraft Operations
While we aren’t quite ready to eliminate pilots from aircraft, the aviation industry has the capability today to take off, navigate, and land aircraft without a pilot. The drone industry is growing substantially, and the ability to remotely control an aircraft provides the potential for safety improvements.
The aviation industry pioneered autonomous operations and remains well ahead of the auto industry in this leading-edge technology. Autopilots and flight management systems are complex avionics systems that are becoming more and more sophisticated, and could soon provide the fail-safes that will enable single-pilot plus computer/ground backup operations. The technology is ready, although passenger and union (not to mention regulatory) acceptance remain in the future.
The Bottom Line
Technology integration into commercial aerospace is accelerating, with a focus on materials, manufacturing process, control systems and IT. The next generation, currently in R&D, will provide even more advances as nanotechnology and quantum computing bring new possibilities. We are entering an exciting time of change for our industry.