The aerospace industry is setting itself up for a massive conjunction of need for industrial capacity to produce parts in the near future. Pre-COVID, Boeing and Airbus estimated that 40,000 commercial aircraft will be required over the next 20 years (compared with about 25,000 in service today). The U.S. military is also researching concepts of swarms of unmanned aircraft with limited life and very low cost. Finally, the first air taxis are projected to be in service in 2023. All of these concepts will require significant use of composites to meet their range and speed requirements, which will stress today’s industrial base.
Today, the composites industrial base is predicated on hand lay up or current automated layup machines that have only 20-50 percent machine utilization. It is also still more analog than digital. Companies are dabbling in digital to solve specific pain points, such as asset tracking, but few manufactures have a true enterprise-wide Industry 4.0 environment.
A state change must happen for the aerospace industry to achieve production rates for future aircraft. First, automation of composites must be a major component to enable the coming production wave. Done right, automation will alleviate the need for significant capital investment and lessen the number of new skilled workers for manufacturing aircraft. Second, the composites community needs to embrace Industry 4.0 concepts to get actionable insights from data generated during fabrication and assembly. Key themes for future research to make automation and Industry 4.0 available for aerospace composites production include:
SME has launched a Technical Community on Composites Automation to address these needs. I am part of the technical community, and I welcome input for the discussions we are beginning.
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