The 53rd International Paris Air Show 2019 has confirmed the mounting fierce competition in the world of aeronautics. In this context, data, digital tools and artificial intelligence are now understood to be precious bargaining chips to accelerate transformation and turn these challenges into opportunities.
Whilst the 2019 Paris Air Show has resolutely confirmed the commercial energy in the sector by generating some 140 billion EUR (126 billion GBP) in contracts, it has also highlighted the challenges faced by the aeronautic industry. Of course, the most striking and easily anticipated phenomenon is the huge rise in air traffic coming over the next few years. This has brought about some major issues in terms of productivity and timing, not only for manufacturers but for all contractors and suppliers across the value chain.
This increased demand comes with heightened compliance requirements, in turn leading to new expectations in terms of service quality, traceability and maintenance. Even though they are still facing competition, the sector also needs to figure out how to come to terms with a new problem with image reputation: the general public is expressing growing concern over the environmental impact of air travel.
Strengthen collaboration across the whole value chain
Matters of transformation are already well underway at large aircraft manufacturers. But these matters now concern suppliers too, as they now also have to monitor the movement to guarantee their own industrial performance and to be in a position to supply this buyer-led movement. Going digital concerns all activities in the sector, from industrial production itself to the supply chain, maintenance and even tracking orders.
But this is not just a question of going digital: companies need to be ready to integrate the data-sharing programmes developed by some of the sector’s biggest names. In this respect, the Skywise platform developed by Airbus is one of the first initiatives of this type. Originally developed for maintenance purposes, Skywise has been gradually enhanced in an aim to meet the operational needs expressed by airlines, as well as opening up to external suppliers. Aligning with this process is becoming a matter of competitive edge for Tier 1 suppliers, resulting in a ripple effect spreading, little by little, across the entire value chain. The company’s published aim is to make the platform a bona fide ‘app store’, specialised in digital transformation catered to the entire aeronautic industry.
For European aircraft manufacturers, as for the rest of the sector, involving data specialists in these considerations is one way of accelerating new service developments. It also aims to answer – at least partly – the crucial question regarding the need for higher expertise in innovation.
GIFAS (the French aerospace industries association) in particular, successfully concluded phase 2 of its national programme for improving supply chain performance aimed at 300 SMEs and mid-sized companies in the sector. The ‘Industrie du Futur’ programme (Industry of the Future) is now taking the reins, actively encouraging the migration towards Industry 4.0, fostering collaboration between suppliers and buyers, and also securing information and production systems.
With these programmes, manufacturers are looking to bolster collaboration between all stakeholders in the value chain to raise their performance on a long term basis.
Optimise and rationalise business
Boeing’s 737 Max may have stolen the show in 2017, but it was the Airbus A321 XLR that won over delegates in 2019. These aircraft were not produced as part of a new programme, however: rather they symbolise the prominent trend for large manufacturers to optimise and rationalise, a trend which is now spreading across the industry.
Out of all the elements in the chain, data, simulation tools and artificial intelligence are competing to improve energy efficiency as well as to reduce CO2 emissions. From engine manufacturers to airlines, flight data that optimises take-off and landing sequences are being analysed, where possible, to reduce kerosene consumption, travel time and noise pollution reported by residents.
Analysis tools are frequently used in aeronautics as they benefit from data which has been aggregated internally and enhanced by resources not only from other departments but also from suppliers, partners or clients. From design to manufacture, maintenance to operations, the main occupations in the industry are benefiting from the gradual disappearance of silos.
Accelerate thanks to virtual and augmented reality
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) remain important allies to the aeronautic industry, which was one of the first industries to adopt widespread use of VR and AR. The 2019 show has confirmed their interest in different scenarios specialised in design, compliance, maintenance and training. But the time for experimenting has come to an end: all the biggest names in the sector are now integrating applications directly in the production chain.
Whilst demonstrations have proven their worth, there are still some expectations that need to be met in regards to equipment, such as the development of more ergonomic and automatic devices. Today, smartphones and tablets account for the bulk of devices in factories and workshops, whereas smart glasses and other headsets are often perceived as being too cumbersome. Could the HoloLens 2 mixed reality headset launched by Microsoft last year be a gamechanger?
Transforming air space into mobile space
Aeronautic transformation covers a wider scope than just industry. It also mobilises air traffic regulation authorities which are constantly seeking to optimise traffic flow. It’s still too soon to see the wide-scale deployment of robot pilots on passenger flights, however, the rise in drones is boosting interest in operating and regulatory matters. The development of taxi-robot prototypes presented at the 2019 show by various manufacturers has also paved the way for R&D activities that could be useful in more traditional business activities. Regulating airspace is the key to making it a mobile space in the truest sense and initiatives are underway: aeronautic security bodies have recently proposed an EU-wide charter to regulate the use of drones in airspace which should be ratified by 2020.
Reducing the carbon footprint
In Sweden, ‘flygskam’ is a growing movement. It brings together environmentally conscious travellers hesitant of using air travel and who prefer alternative solutions such as the train. At the beginning of June, French ministers proposed a bill to ban domestic flights where the journey is achievable in less than 5 hours by train. The environmental issue is hugely important for the aeronautic industry. Green fuels, hybridisation and electric propulsion are giving rise to many new experiments, indicating that the sector has fully understood the urgency of the environmental crisis. The current tests underway may have little bearing on medium and long-haul traffic, but electric power seems to be finding some openings for small aircraft and short-haul flights. Completely electric planes aren’t available yet, however, this technology performs as an alternative to the main reactors in use during taxi, replacing them with an electric engine in the landing gear.
The 2019 edition may not have revealed any disruptive innovations but it has confirmed two fundamental trends: rationalisation and improvement. It confirms that the movement toward innovation has already begun. Advancements in 3D, data and artificial intelligence are now finding their rightful place across the entire value chain. Originating among big buyers, digital is trickling down to small suppliers and should continue to feed into the future transformation of the aeronautics business.