Digital turnaround in the aerospace industry

How digital production processes, air taxis, and unicorns are revolutionizing the aerospace industry

You only need one glance up into the sky to see that the number of passengers and scheduled flights has been significantly reduced. In the midst of the aerospace industry’s shift towards an automated, digitalized, and environmentally friendly transport sector, Corona has struck with full force and brought severe consequences for the industry.

It is still unclear whether and when we will return to a “normal” everyday life that even remotely resembles pre-Corona times. Compared with the previous year, scheduled flight departures worldwide have been almost halved at the beginning of 2021. Although worldwide travel will theoretically be possible, many people have learned to forego supposedly important yet actually unnecessary journeys. After a short holiday boom to overcome the “Corona collapse”, the number of flights will probably be reduced.

However, the situation may also develop differently or rather in the same way that past global economic events have boosted the aerospace industry. Even though the effects of the current situation are much more immediate and limiting for travel, it is conceivable that even after Corona, the aerospace industry will awaken from the crisis with exponential growth and exceed expectations.

Despite the statistical glimmer of hope, the industry itself is rather conservative in its planning and is facing considerable changes. This even goes so far that industry experts do not expect to see new models from top manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing until 2030. In any case, these two manufacturers in particular will have difficulties meeting the new standards or, in some cases, even the minimum requirements. At the same time, new start-ups with hopes of redefining aerospace with more radical concepts are springing up.

Is Corona the turning point for the entire aerospace industry?

In particular, the two swords of Damocles – sustainability and digitzation – are hovering over the industry. Between established companies with decades of tradition in the industry and start-ups hungry for success, the aerospace industry is striving to gain a better image. The most important developments here are mainly:

  • Sustainability and e-mobility: The green image of the aerospace industry has long been refined – with moderate success. Pressure on margins has always made it difficult to invest in serious green measures. With Rolls-Royce as one of the largest turbine manufacturers, CO2 neutrality is also entering a new round. (‘We’re committed to a net zero carbon future for all of our products, both existing and future.’ – Simon Carlisle, Rolls-Royce Strategy Director for Civil Aerospace)
    New concepts in the direction of an e-propulsion system, which have already been tested successfully (albeit in a very small range in an older Cessna) at least raise hope in this respect. The longer maintenance intervals of electric aircraft (at least in the small aircraft sector) can also be viewed an opportunity for alternative propulsion systems.
  • Air Taxis: The new concept of air taxis stands between a vision of the future and climate protection. The development of numerous models – from solar-powered e-planes and quadrocopters to small propeller and jet aircraft – could soon become a reality. A competition has broken out and is strongly driving the speed of development, testing, and innovation. Examples from the German-speaking region such as Lilium or Volocopter show that the concept of air taxis is at least possible – if the regulatory conditions allow it.
  • Disruption of the long-haul airlines?: The duopoly of Airbus and Boeing went unchallenged for a long time. The market shares of the long-haul carriers were simply too high, and the control of the market was firmly in their hands. Boom Supersonic is attacking this supremacy and wants to recall the successes of the Concorde with supersonic flights for civil aviation. In doing so, Boom consistently relies on the AWS Cloud as the basis for its networked and high-precision manufacturing. With the help of AWS services, simulations, data, and safety-relevant design aspects can be combined, calculated, and implemented. This reinforces the company’s own ambitions in terms of quality and development speed.
  • Digitization of private aviation: What is to be done when overcrowded charter flights are a thing of the past in times of pandemic? That’s right. You simply buy your own plane and get your pilot’s licence. But this is certainly a privilege reserved for only a few. Nevertheless, private aerospace is an important market and a digital latecomer. The special event of buying a private aircraft – increasingly from manufactory-like suppliers in addition to Piper, Cessna, and others – must still function in a highly analogue manner. In some cases, the product information is already insufficient. Configurators, digital twins, and the like are still a long way off. Here, the digital development potential extends directly into the public administration sector, which still has a lot of catching up to do with regard to the certification of sports aircraft.
  • Drone deliveries before the end of this decade: By 2030, the market for drone deliveries is expected to be worth around 5 billion USD worldwide. Asian and American countries account for the bulk of the shares. Europe is taking a back seat for the time being – not least because of regulatory restrictions. But once the decisive barriers fall, a huge step could be taken towards automated deliveries in the German-speaking region as well. It is possible that by 2030, the weekly groceries will be delivered by drone.
  • Digital twins in manufacturing and service: The digital link for many of the trends mentioned above is the Digital Twin. Real progress in aerospace works only if the use of technologies and data and the networking and automation of the value chain are complete. There is a considerable need to catch up, especially in terms of production and service. This means that both manufacturing and subsequent service will need digital twins in order to increase development speed, improve product quality, and reduce production costs. Resilience and sustainability will combine to make both companies and people more open to aviation. What the automotive industry is already doing in many places can largely be emulated by the aerospace industry. This is an opportunity not only for disruptive start-ups but also for traditional companies.

Standards and technology are paving the way

It would be presumptuous to deny that aerospace is one of the most high-tech and innovative industries. Nevertheless, because of the extremely tight market situation, previous gaps in innovation might now finally be filled. It is difficult to discern whether it is Corona, the continuous change of the times, digitization, or the serious pursuit of sustainability initiatives that is driving the upcoming upheaval. It may also be a combination of all these factors.

In order to be able to shape this change, several activities are needed. Some are already being exemplified by start-ups.

  • Flying over in the Cloud: Where does the combination of industry and technology seem more fitting than in aerospace and cloud computing? Not only conceptually but also in terms of content, a geo-redundant network of IT infrastructure, computing power, and applications is ideal for the aerospace industry. As the basis for the networked value chain and digital customer and partner contact, the cloud will soon become the industry standard. Here, it is particularly important for suppliers and specialized manufacturers to adapt to the architecture of the industry leaders and customers (e.g. airlines, air taxis).
  • Data, data, data: The volume of data in the industry is simply immense. The relevance of this data for a resilient product strategy remains high. In order to use this data successfully and thus achieve a further step in development, it must be made available. Generally speaking, often 90% of the work of “data science” consists of making data findable and available. The data must then only be used correctly.
  • Retrofit of production: For the time being, the pressure on margins and costs in the industry will not disappear – even through digital flights of fancy. OEMs and suppliers are therefore unlikely to completely replace their machine fleets. In order to make them fit for digital twins, automated production chains and a digital future, they can also be retrofitted with the necessary sensors and computing power in order to achieve the aforementioned goals. This saves considerable time, money, and training requirements.
  • Together into the new world: In order to save the aerospace industry, some government aid and merger deals were initiated worldwide. This was certainly necessary from the industry’s point of view – even if it was somewhat controversial from a social point of view. In the future, alliances should continue to ensure that smart and permissive cartels are formed in order to address the pursuit of the common goal of saving, innovating, and creating a sustainable industry. There should be as little regulation and state intervention as possible in order not to destroy the agility of the industry through bureaucracy.
  • Standards in production and technology: The creation of the consortia must be accompanied by the definition of important standards. Existing standards in the field of transmission technology, production, and development with digital twins should be adopted as far as possible. In highly specialized aviation, there are several other areas where no standards exist. These should be created as soon as possible. Even if the companies themselves try to create them, in individual cases, it is wiser to submit to the masses and focus on one’s own core business.

The industry is not only facing a major upheaval but also creating several bubbles that will end in a new wave of consolidation. Those who control the technology and innovation will end up on top. It is questionable whether the traditional companies, the start-ups, or even both can survive (albeit in reduced numbers in each case). It is now important to critically analyse the current situation, the competition, and future scenarios. If new technologies, sustainability, and digital innovations of the business model and their processes do not play a role, any attempts for survival will become futile.

Volocopter, Lilium, or Boom might then take over the sky after all.


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