Viewpoints: It's a Changing World for Aircraft Manufacturing
Futurists are having field days speculating on what globalization means economically, politically, and culturally for various nations and regions of the world. Fortunately, a new metaphor for globalization's impact—"The World Is Flat"—doesn't apply to flight plans. The reality is tough enough for commercial aviation. Globalization is transforming travel demands and expectations, bringing sweeping changes in airline operations, aircraft design, and aircraft manufacturing.
The dot-com wiring of the world played a crucial role in bringing all portions of the world closer, facilitating and speeding trends in global sourcing. Many of those new business relationships were still worked out in face-to-face negotiations, however, creating travel demand by "time-is-money" executives for the fastest, most-direct transport between origin and destination.
A related trend is developing in air freight. Global sourcing, selling, and just-in-time logistics require that producers receive and ship smaller quantities more frequently, quickly, and reliably over long distances, driving long-term growth for air freight. While about 20% of today's manufactured goods cross borders, experts predict the volume will grow to 80% by 2020.
Responding to these trends, aircraft companies are engineering new aircraft that can operate economically on both long-range routes and shorter, point-to-point/quick turnaround routes. This work is leading to innovations in engines, airframe materials, and manufacturing methods. And new manufacturers are creating a new class of aircraft, the Very Light Jet (VLJ), which will usher in the era of the personal jet and air taxi. Designed for short-haul routes (1000 miles or less), VLJs can operate out of virtually any airfield, providing time-saving point-to-point access to thousands of locations not served by airlines today.The FAA expects 1600 VLJs to be flying in the US by 2010.
On the manufacturing side, aircraft manufacturers are investing in composite fabrication technologies, faster and more productive metalworking equipment, lean manufacturing methods, and greater application of automation. They are also more widely outsourcing component production, while specifying and qualifying the machinery and processes to be used.
Boeing leads the way on composite fuselage construction with the new 787 Dreamliner, the first commercial aircraft with composite fuselage, wing, and tail construction. The Dreamliner replaces millions of parts joined by armies of assemblers with large, prefabricated sections produced on automated CNC composite lay-up machines. Programmable, near-net-shape layup optimizes structural integrity, reduces material waste as much as 65%, and minimizes the need for subsequent machining and hand finishing. Composites will reduce weight and fuel consumption by nearly 20%, Boeing figures, while delivering best-in-class comfort and useable passenger space. Machinery makers are facilitating composite production with automated CNC fiber placement systems for large 3-D structures and tape layers for flat and low-profile structures.
Composite construction greatly expands the use of titanium. Especially used for large, critical monolithic components that join composite sections together, titanium offers a coefficient of expansion similar to that of composites, and avoids aluminum's corrosion problems caused by galvanic reaction with carbon fibers.
On the metalcutting side, airframe and engine makers seek faster, more productive, and precise machining across the material spectrum from aluminum to steel, titanium, and tough nickel alloys such as Inconel. Linear-motor-drive profilers deliver the highest metal removal rates in aluminum processing—460 in.3/min (0.3 m3/min).
Manufacturers are upgrading to advanced multitasking and multiaxis machines that can integrate operations and machine multiple faces and complex geometries without refixturing.
Finally, world-class producers of aircraft and aircraft components are seeing the cost savings and accuracy improvements that can be achieved by utilizing manufacturing practices adopted from automotive manufacturing. Automated assembly, system integration, and testing are quickly gaining acceptance as necessary elements for productive aerospace manufacturing.
Certain long-time equipment makers now provide comprehensive machinery, process engineering, and integration capabilities on a global basis. This can speed and simplify the entry of new companies and nations into the aerospace industry.
Just as surely as time will always be money, the world will keep growing closer logistically, riding the wings of aircraft design and manufacturing advances.
This article was first published in the March 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.