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May 15, 2023

The Top Trends in the Aerospace and Defense Sector in 2023

Top 6 Aerospace and Defense Engineering Trends in 2023

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. 

What is causing the disruption in the aerospace industry? 

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: 

  • Aftershocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting supply chain disruptions
  • Labor shortages and other disruptions in the engineering workforce
  • Technological advancements that have made major strides in the last couple of years
  • Evolving consumer and client expectations, particularly around sustainability and clean energy

Let’s take a closer look at each of these disruptions in more detail. 

Supply chain disruptions

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:

  • Supply chain diversification to avoid concentration risk
  • Developing deep visibility into supply chains to improve supply control and coordination—which requires a transformation of the use of data in A&D
  • Implementing digital supply chains to better monitor supplier risk, as most disruption occur beyond tier 1
  • Prioritizing cybersecurity, cloud privacy, and resilience of systems and automations

Labor and workforce dynamics

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:

  • Aging workforce composition resulting in shortages that increase the competition for talent in the industry
  • Automation and use of advanced digital technologies bringing a change in education requirements, driving the need for more advanced aerospace engineering, math, data science, and digital skills
  • Technical skills gaps as defense companies transition from legacy tools and technologies to more modern operations
  • Downstream effects of labor dynamics of supply chain issues to lower revenue outlooks

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. 

Technological advancements and innovations

It almost seems unnecessary to discuss the many technological advancements and innovations within aerospace & defense. Some of the more prominent and impactful include:

  • Energy transformation from fossil fuels to renewables
  • Explosion of Big Data in tandem with the evolution of AI and machine learning 
  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) becoming more responsive and useful
  • Manufacturing transformation, including smart factory and 3D printing
  • Chemical engineering advancements resulting in more flexible materials for building

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. 

Consumer and client expectations

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. 

What are the top aerospace engineering trends for 2023? 

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. 

Digital Transformation in Aerospace Tooling

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:

  • Remain agile and avoid bottlenecks by enabling efficient operations
  • Adopt data-intensive solutions like digital threads, digital twins, and advanced analytics
  • Provide a competitive advantage over companies remaining on legacy platforms
  • Meet requirements to compete for certain government programs

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

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

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:

  • Route optimization
  • Asset utilization
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Decision-making during autonomous flight operations

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.

Sustainable Energy

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:

  • Biofuels can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, cutting down carbon emissions
  • Electric flight technology can further curb emissions
  • Energy-efficient integrations & designs can aid in improving fuel efficiency, thereby reducing emissions and costs even for those designs that continue to use fossil fuels

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

Additive Manufacturing and Smart Factories

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:

  • Piezoelectric materials. Materials that can produce electric energy upon application of mechanical stress
  • Shape memory materials. Materials that can recover their original shape from a significant and seemingly plastic deformation when a particular stimulus is applied
  • Chromoactive materials. Materials that change color when exposed to certain stimuli
  • Magnetorheological materials. Materials whose rheological properties may be rapidly varied by application of a magnetic field
  • Photoactive materials. Materials that actively interact with light are tuned and optimized to achieve effects such as light emission or detection

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. 

Satellites and Space Infrastructure

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:

  • Satellite miniaturization, which enables pico- and nanosatellites to become easily launchable and scalable
  • Global connectivity demands driving the needs for satellite-based communications systems
  • Additive manufacturing optimizing satellite production and maintenance of in-orbit systems

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. 

Other Emerging Technologies

Finally, there are a number of emerging technologies in the aerospace sector that promise to transform the industry. These innovations include:

  • Hypersonic aircraft & weaponry
  • Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), which is fully electric commercial air travel
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles, often electric, providing safer, more efficient commercial deliveries

As these markets continue to develop, engineering requirements and expectations will have to evolve to keep up. 

How do regulations such as ITAR, DO-178, DO 330 affect the trends in aerospace and defense? 

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. 

Final thoughts on major aerospace engineering trends

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:

  • Quick pivoting to incorporate and test new technologies in response to client demand
  • Process changes that can easily conform to the design, testing, validation, and production requirements of various complex and interconnected systems
  • Data intelligence that resists silos and enables open sharing of information among all your teams 
  • Cross-functional communication to ensure efficiency and peak productivity across your whole organization

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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is ITAR?

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.

What is DO-178?

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.

What is DO 278?

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.

What is DO 330?

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.

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