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Materials, automation and funding are cornerstones of report on UK growth through aerospace manufacturing

Materials Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) : 12 November, 2012  (Special Report)
A new report outlines the importance of the manufacturing industries, with particular emphasis upon aerospace, to the reignition of UK economic growth.

Entitled UK Growth Through Aerospace Manufacturing: The Strategic Role of Aerospace Manufacturing relative to the AAD KTN Technology Roadmaps, the report outlines the importance of the manufacturing industries, with particular emphasis upon aerospace, to the reignition of UK economic growth.

The National Technical Committee for Advanced Design & Manufacturing, chaired by Stevee Johnston of BAE Systems, has collaborated to create the report, which articulates the specific details of the value that manufacturing brings to an economy, such as: long-term returns on investment; a sound knowledge and skills base; and exportable products which maintain national competitiveness.

The aim is to convince stakeholders across industry, academia and Government that manufacturing-based sectors, and especially high-value areas such as aerospace manufacturing, must continue to be invested in, but more importantly, that the investment should be channelled to the right areas. With competition to the UK emerging from BRIC states and beyond, the UK must be very shrewd in deciding exactly where its advantage lies in terms of future technologies and manufacturing capabilities.

The report seeks to identify some of these crucial areas, and is underpinned by a Manufacturing Technology Roadmap, which highlights exactly which technologies will drive the markets of tomorrow.

The airline industry has been under increasing financial pressure as a result of the events of the early 21st century. Large scale events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the disruptive ash cloud caused by the eruptions of Icelandic volcanoes, have placed great pressure upon the industry.

The cost of fuel has and continues to increase; the imposition of a carbon tax looks imminently possible; flight traffic is depressed by the recession and the threat of international terrorism continues. Furthermore, national governments have suffered major financial deficits and are seeking ways to make significant savings on the purchase of military air systems.

As a consequence, cost reduction and lowering the overall cost of ownership has become a primary driver for the industry. Future success is dependent on the UK’s aerospace industry’s ability to deliver cost effective products and services throughout the product’s lifecycle. Costs must be addressed in a number of ways, including adopting automotive industry techniques for delivering quality products on time, while continually reducing the cost base.

The aim must be to develop unique design and manufacturing technologies and support tools that reduce the cost of airframe, engine and system manufacture by a minimum of 20%. These savings are needed to remain internationally competitive and ensure high value manufacturing capabilities and associate skills are retained for the benefit of the UK thus sustaining the financial revenues provided for the economy. 

R&D expenditure on new manufacturing technologies and infrastructure needed to support the development of gamechanging manufacturing strategies has increased very recently as successive administrations have recognised the importance of manufacturing, but this is a recent, small upturn in what has been a decade of contraction for the aerospace industry. Resultantly, the majority of advances have been incremental, continuous improvements using conventional equipment and methods. A significant transformation is now required to reduce the traditionally high cost base and greatly improve financial performance.  There must be increased management and monetary investment in technology innovation and its successful exploitation in manufacturing high quality, cost effective, desirable products. This requires the introduction of more productive equipment, verifying the capability of key processes, introducing effective organisational structures, collaborating with customers and suppliers to develop responsive supply chains, and the continued total commitment to the highest quality standards.

Key Challenges

  • Reducing the non-recurring airframe and equipment design and qualification costs
  • Introducing new materials that provide longer, servicefree life
  • Reducing manufacturing costs, whilst maintaining the highest quality standards
  • Reducing the weight of airframes, engines and components
  • Making aircraft more sustainable, environmentally acceptable and reducing all forms of pollution
  • Reducing CO2 and other harmful engine emissions
  • Making aircraft more reliable with considerably lower servicing costs
  • Making equipment easier and safer to dispose of at end of life.
  • Pressure on raw materials supply due to shortages and foreign government’s decisions to develop their own processing and higher value manufacturing base.

Particular concerns include:

  • Titanium alloys, which are in short supply and the conversion of raw materials is very energy intensive.
  • Composite structures are cured using pressurised autoclaves and ways of reducing this energy must be found. Alternative composite materials and processing technologies are required.
  • Composite materials are expensive to recycle and dispose of at the end of life.
  • New tools and techniques must be identified and introduced to support design optimisation for assembly, sustainability and end of life recycling or disposal. 

Net Shape Processes

Titanium alloys are widely used in aerospace structural applications, and based on future usage projections demand will outstrip its availability. The normal conversion process into finished component is machining: typical buy-to-fly ratio for components manufactured from billet are less than 95:1, resulting in long machining times. In order to ensure a sustainable process a step change is required in the way titanium components are manufactured and qualified. Net shape technologies exhibit great potential but difficulties in manufacturing and qualification processes need to be resolved:

  • Validation methodologies for net shape materials and processes differ between aerospace sectors; therefore standard frameworks defining the steps to flight certification are required. These must be able to accommodate the differences between various types of product with the flexibility to evaluate a range of operating parameters.
  • Extensive material testing is an essential requirement but a facility to share information is required in order to reduce validation costs. The situation is exacerbated by processing methods and/or material combinations often being proprietary to specific companies.
  • The research into understanding the criticality of processes and the controls needed to produce consistent and reliable aerospace standard titanium components must be completed. Once accomplished, an industrial level UK supply base for manufacturing qualified aerospace products from these advanced materials must be established. 

Specific areas that are of interest in this theme are:

  • Additive layer manufacturing
  • High speed machining
  • Near net shape forming
  • Net shape casting technologies
  • Metal injection moulding (MIM)
  • Hot isostatic pressing (Hipping)

Surface coatings

Engineering coatings are used extensively in the aerospace and defence sectors as performance enablers. The technology is mature for coatings such as chrome for wear resistance, Cr6+ for corrosion resistance and cadmium for galvanic protection. The driver for replacing engineering coatings is based on current and forthcoming legislation which will restrict or ban the use of these materials on health, safety and environmental grounds. There is a reluctance to change from proven technologies unless significant performance or cost advantages can be obtained by using new surface treatments, particularly on flight certified aircraft. However, legislation will force imminent change, increasing the urgency for new research. Aerospace companies depend upon extensive supply chains and contractors therefore; an accessible industrial library would offer considerable advantages, however this may conflict with proprietary developments.

Composites and coating technologies are at a much earlier stage of development. Composites are increasingly used in aerospace structures and new coatings and processes are required to improve composite surface properties to meet demanding in-service requirements.

Specific areas of interest in this theme are:

  • Replacement of hard chromes and cadmium coatings
  • Control of coating architecture at a microstructure level
  • Corrosion protection coatings with advanced frictional and wear properties
  • Surface coating for composites materials
  • Surface preparation
  • Nanocoatings

Ultra Low Cost Tooling

The customary aim is to complete as many tasks as possible in one operation and to ensure the various tasks can be performed using the tooling available on the machine. The tooling costs on aerospace programmes are a significant proportion of the initial investment expenditure. Therefore, in conjunction with developing new manufacturing processes, it is paramount to embrace more cost effective tooling solutions in order to remain competitive in global aerospace markets. 

Specific areas of interest in this theme are as follows:

  • Rapid tool manufacture
  • Reconfigurable and adaptive tool
  • New generation of mould tools materials
  • Tool design systems/distortion
  • Tool coatings

The increasing use of composites in place of metals in aircraft structures provides a major opportunity to gain competitive advantage in aircraft development. In the next two decades this will necessitate a significant change to the structural materials used in aircraft. The most common composite materials will be fibre composites embedded in a resin matrix. Extensive successful development work has already been undertaken in these composites, but further innovation is required to establish their economic application in aircraft system components. These include new composite coatings, lower labour cost processes and also new design, modelling, analysis and inspection tools to enable thick section components to be designed and manufactured from novel composite materials.

Particular issues to be addressed include:

  • Autoclaving: Capital and running costs for traditional autoclaving processes are very high, therefore research into lower cost, more efficient autoclave and composite curing techniques are essential. This will require specific research into “out of autoclave” composite curing, greater understanding of material properties, the development of new tooling concepts and the identification of critical process control parameters.
  • Automation: Research investment to-date has focused on assembling large civil aircraft structures. This work needs to be complemented by developing automation techniques for the manufacture and assembly of small to medium sized, composite and metal components.  It is envisaged a collaborative approach between robotics manufacturers, material suppliers, universities and industry is required to establish capabilities for handling components up to 3m by 3m with medium to complex curvatures.
  • Qualification: New composite manufacturing techniques have the potential to maintain a technological lead for UK companies.  However, any benefits derived from improved efficiency, lower costs and enhanced repeatability will be to no avail without ensuring
  • certification techniques have been approved, qualifying them for flight.

Specific areas of interest in this theme are:

Automation systems

The report notes that research investment to-date has focused on assembling large civil aircraft structures. This work needs to be complemented by developing automation techniques for the manufacture and assembly of small to medium sized, composite and metal components.  It is envisaged a collaborative approach between robotics manufacturers, material suppliers, universities and industry is required to establish capabilities for handling components up to 3m by 3m with medium to complex curvatures.

Future aircraft assembly methods for the civil and military sectors will be significantly different. Large and small civil aircraft, military jets and unmanned air vehicles all place unique demands upon assembly and manufacturing supply chains. Variation in rate, size of airframe, use of new materials, reduced fly-away cost and such, are driving innovation in assembly methods. The industry must adopt technologies from related industries in order to retain and enhance its international competitive position, particularly against the emerging countries with ambitions to commercialise their own aerospace technologies. Very few automated robotic assembly systems have been installed in UK aerospace companies and those tend to be dedicated installations. 

The traditional practice of installing expensive fixed machinery restricts flexibility and sustainability, as it is difficult to re-configure production facilities.  Research into lower capital cost enhancement technologies is needed to focus on developing simple technologies and tools that raise productivity while maintaining workforce engagement. The introduction of small robotic and man-portable systems could offer significant productivity advantages for original equipment production and in-service support activities. Therefore, these systems must be configured using standard robotic equipment and have the necessary functional capability to accommodate high variety combined with low to medium production rates.

The cost benefits derived from installing reconfigurable automation systems should ensure they can be readily deployed across the UK aerospace industry. This will allow the UK to retain global competitiveness against emerging countries with low cost workforces.

Specific areas of interest in this theme are:

  • Low cost automation of manufacturing and assembly operations
  • Design optimisation for cost and sustainability
  • Product configuration and assembly process optimisation
  • Shimming and automatic application of adhesives
  • Measurement-assisted assembly
  • Agile reconfigurable scalable modular assembly systems
  • Tolerance modelling and analysis
  • Defect free build

Many of today’s aerospace products are now controlled by digital threads, all the way through design, development, manufacture, and in service. Such digital data is becoming readily available and imminently usable to assist many aspects of an aircraft’s development and traceability. For example, in manufacturing they can integrate design and manufacturing parametric models, aid the design of automation, assist the development and control of facilities and validate inspection methods. This will result in true design for manufacture, reduced variation, increased quality, improved product / facility knowledge and increased
repeatability. These will subsequently significantly reduce manufacturing costs and increase overall competitiveness. Several pioneering advanced support processes and toolsets are being released into the market but this requires investment in the knowledge base in order to effectively manage and exploit digital threads in an integrated way.

Principal Authors
Stephen Johnston BSc Hons MIMMM, CEng Chairman, Advanced Design & Manufacturing NTC
John Garside, Consultant
Daniel Jones, Network & Communications Manager, Aerospace, Aviation & Defence KTN


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