Like many engineering sectors, the aerospace industry has experienced much disruption in recent years. The result: changing demands, skills sets, and expectations on engineers and other professionals.
Some of these disruptions are caused by changes in federal government policies. Others are due to new innovations and technologies that have opened up new possibilities for the industry.
Let’s walk through six key engineering trends among aerospace and defense companies emerging from these disruptions.
There isn’t a single factor responsible for the current disruption in the defense / aerospace industry. Rather, it looks like a number of different events and trends are converging:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these disruptions in more detail.
A major source of aerospace industry disruption has been increasingly complex supply chains. As aerospace & defense (A&D) companies rely on multiple tiers of suppliers - often numbering in the tens of thousands - the noise can lead to limited visibility.
What’s more, recent policy decisions from the U.S. federal government have had downstream consequences. Some of these policies are proactive, while others are reactive. Proactively, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has prioritized the development of domestic supply chains to prevent the shortages that were common during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reactively, the conflict in Ukraine has resulted in a number of defense production software requirements that engineers didn’t anticipate prior to the invasion.
Additionally, the Ukrainian conflict has also cut off U.S. manufacturers from Russian supplies of titanium, which comprised 50% of supply to the aerospace & defense sector.
In response, aerospace companies are prioritizing the following initiatives:
Despite improvements in the U.S. labor market, workforce turnover rates are still high, leading to reduced production and delays in contracts. This is due to a number of factors:
One example from Deloitte shows that a leading aerospace and defense company hired 2.5 times planned engineer hires due to high attrition. Additionally, a leading global aerospace OEM estimates that the commercial aerospace segment could require an additional 610,000 technicians for the maintenance division alone in the next two decades, with the North American region accounting for about 22% of the overall requirement.
Because of these changes, many aerospace & defense companies are facing challenges in organizational change management. These issues have downstream implications for culture and organizational efficiency.
It almost seems unnecessary to discuss the many technological advancements and innovations within aerospace & defense. Some of the more prominent and impactful include:
Many of these advancements enable greater agility and versatility to specific demands, as well as streamlining engineering processes to improve efficiency.
At the same time, these advancements come with their own challenges. Among the most prominent are the different skill sets new engineers are expected to know, as well as general change management challenges in adopting new processes and technologies.
In every field, but especially in the aerospace sector, there are growing consumer expectations, particularly around climate change and renewable energy.
Some of these expectations are a result of market conditions, while others are due to federal mandates. Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and prefer to do business with companies that prioritize clean energy.
There is also a proposed rule from the federal government that, if approved, would require all defense contractors to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and set emissions reduction goals.
Regardless of where the expectations are coming from, there’s a growing push toward renewable and sustainable energy. This is undoubtedly driving a number of environmental and technological innovations we’re seeing in the field right now.
In response to a number of these trends in the aerospace and defense sector, many major companies are investing in new processes and technologies to become more adaptable and agile.
Note that while we list these six trends separately, they’re all interconnected. A great example is the overlap between digital transformation and artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and space infrastructure, and so forth. It’s wrong to think of these as distinct trends, but as pieces in a much more complex puzzle.
As these aerospace engineering trends continue to bear out, many companies will need to change their tools, systems, processes and technologies to keep up. Those who don’t may, in a decade or less, find themselves unable to compete.
Aerospace engineers are increasingly expected to be more agile with limited production capabilities, not to mention future disruptions. In response, many companies are embracing digital transformation to:
Digital transformation touches all areas within an organization, including engineering processes, supply chain management and visibility, digital factory, data de-sioling, and more. Specific features and functionalities include cloud, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning (more on that below), digital twins, the Internet of Things (IoT) and more.
One approach some aerospace engineers are taking is adopting model-based design. This approach enables them to build functional digital models and test them in virtual environments. By reducing the need to manufacture and test physical prototypes, model-based design provides a more effective and agile approach to testing.
In addition, virtual environments and immersive technologies are also applied to train aerospace employees. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are used to allow engineers and pilots to work in complex environments, view composite structures, and even provide additional information via helmets or glasses.
For example, Aries is a startup providing VR-based training solutions. Fyr, another startup, has developed a head-mounted AR-based visualization system.
Here’s an article where we go into more depth about why digital transformation is critical for forward looking aerospace systems engineering companies.
In an effort to automate monotonous processes and eliminate human errors, aerospace companies are turning to AI and machine learning technology to aid certain human operations.
AI provides a benefit by handling complex problems in a shorter amount of time, and with fewer errors, than a human counterpart. These can include:
Right now, the goal is for AI to serve as an assistant to the human pilot, rather than replace them.
Among recent aerospace AI startups are Skydweller Aero, which has developed a solar-powered autonomous flight system; and Beacon AI, which has pioneered an AI-enabled co-pilot device.
Here’s an article where we go into more depth about how AI and ML are fundamentally changing aerospace systems.
With growing concerns around climate change, many aerospace companies are prioritizing carbon footprint reduction. This has recently become a possibility due to innovations and advancements in energy technology:
A couple of interesting examples of these trends include Metafuels, a Swiss startup that’s developing alternative fuels for aerospace operations. Metafuels’s proprietary technology converts green methanol into sustainable aviation fuel, potentially reducing the carbon footprint by up to 80%.
Additionally, Airbus has launched a new line of electric aircraft in an effort to bring zero emission aircraft to market by 2035.
Here’s an article where we go into more depth about the key drivers and challenges of sustainable energy in aerospace, aviation and defense companies.
With advances in metal 3D printing, additive manufacturing plays a significant role in aerospace manufacturing, enabling companies to leverage low-volume production runs in a more cost effective way.
Additionally, smart materials allow manufacturers to produce stronger, lighter alternatives to conventional materials. These can include:
Additive manufacturing enables aerospace companies to rapidly develop prototypes, shortening lead times, improving cycle times, and increasing factory efficiency. It can also be a key component in enabling the adoption of “smart factory” initiatives, another aerospace engineering trend for 2023.
Smart factory specifically connects individual processes within and beyond production sites. This can provide critical material and component supply visibility to ensure efficient production, faster design to delivery, and increased scalability.
A moonshot goal of the aerospace industry has been the development of a flourishing space industry, enabling us to take advantage of the environment outside our own planet. In 2023, it seems we’re closer to that dream than ever.
Falling costs of launching satellites into orbit and the growing demand for geospatial intelligence and satellite imagery has led to a boom in the satellite and space infrastructure sector. In fact, satellite launches make up the majority of commercial space activities.
Some of the more notable developments in this area include:
Examples of transformation in space infrastructure include Dragonfly Aerospace, a South African startup building Satellite Buses. Additionally, UK startup Citadel Space Systems is manufacturing nano- and picosatellite platforms for applications in research, discovery, and education.
Additionally, there is a growing trend for space activity management, which seeks to better understand and control movements in space. These can include tourism, industrial missions, servicing, food production, waste disposal, and more. This development is key to a safe, productive space industry to emerge.
Finally, there are a number of emerging technologies in the aerospace sector that promise to transform the industry. These innovations include:
As these markets continue to develop, engineering requirements and expectations will have to evolve to keep up.
Aerospace tools are heavily regulated due to the sensitive nature of the technologies involved. Aerospace certifications and regulations such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR certification), DO-178C, and DO-330 are just a few examples of the many standards that have been put in place to ensure that products and technologies developed in this industry meet the highest standards of safety, reliability, and security.
While these regulations can be seen as a hindrance to innovation by adding extra layers of bureaucracy and cost, at Collimator, we believe that they actually do the opposite. They ensure that the end products meet the safety needs of the customer while providing a solid foundation upon which innovation can be sustained. More information on this is included in the appendix.
The aerospace engineering trends we’ve listed here only scratch the surface. Supersonic flights, satellite communication, and further advancements in Big Data are just a few.
This is an exciting time to be in aerospace engineering, but it also can be a confusing time. With so much change in the air, it can be challenging to adapt your engineering processes to keep up. In some cases, companies don’t adapt - and they put their business at risk while doing so.
There are several key aspects to an effective aerospace engineering process in the face of all this change:
As the aerospace industry becomes more complex, your organization has to keep up. Fortunately, with the right amount of planning and intentionally, you can soar in this opportunity-rich market.
Learn more about how Collimator’s model based development and verification tools can help you remain agile and scalable in this changing market here.
ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) is a set of strict regulations established by the US Department of State that govern the export and import of defense-related articles and services.
Companies in aerospace that deal with ITAR-controlled items must comply with guidelines that include obtaining the necessary licenses and approvals, restricting access to ITAR-controlled technical data and equipment, implementing effective security measures, maintaining detailed records, and having robust ITAR compliance programs in place to ensure ongoing adherence to the regulations. Failure to comply with ITAR regulations can result in hefty fines and penalties.
DO 178, DO-278, and DO-330 are all software standard documents published by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), but they have different scopes and purposes.
DO-178C, titled "Software Considerations in Airborne Systems and Equipment Certification," provides guidance for the development of software used in airborne systems. It covers the entire software development life cycle, including requirements definition, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance, and is focused on the safety-critical aspects of software development for airborne systems.
DO-278, titled "Guidelines for Communication, Navigation, Surveillance, and Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) Systems Software Integrity Assurance," provides guidance for the development of software used in communication, navigation, surveillance, and air traffic management (CNS/ATM) systems. It covers the entire software development life cycle, including requirements definition, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance, and is focused on ensuring the safety and integrity of software used in CNS/ATM systems.
DO-330, titled "Preparation and Qualification of Software Tools Used in Development and Verification Processes," provides guidance for the development and qualification of software tools used in the development and software verification of safety-critical aviation systems. It focuses specifically on software tools and their qualification.