Shortening the Development Cycle in the Aerospace Sector

By Stephen Dyson


Safety is the overriding concern in aerospace and space technology, comments Stephen Dyson, Special Operations Manager at Protolabs. Countless test cycles, inspection procedures and certificates are behind every single part of the jigsaw. Although safety requirements are non-negotiable, they come at a cost – they slow down the speed of the product development cycle. 

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In recent years, the market for aerospace and space technology has seen significant growth.  Forecasts are pointing towards global growth of 5.1% for the coming decade.  This growth is only partly driven by increasing demand from emerging economies, which are often playing catch up.  To be successful in future, client-specific applications and solutions must be implemented flexibly for demanding clients. This means focusing on innovations that allow for customisation but also longevity and cost-reduction - without compromising on comfort or safety.

Servicing the industry

With this forecast growth, a turning point seems to have been reached. The sector has had to make some harsh cutbacks in recent years. Which leaves the question whether Aerospace companies are ready and able to participate in this upturn? Studies have shown that the aerospace sector is threatened by a shortage of manpower. The next generation of skilled engineers is not being produced, while the average age of workers has increased dramatically. Today, there is less excitement or desire to work in aerospace engineering - which used to be a high-profile, showcase industry – compared to companies like Apple and Google.

In a recent report by Carbon60 Aerospace, 59% of employers are concerned that a scarcity of engineers could pose a threat to their business in the future. The same survey showed that 32% of engineering vacancies are considered ‘hard-to-fill’, approximately twice that of the UK average. Furthermore, nearly half (48.3%) of engineering enterprises said that recruitment difficulties had caused delays in developing new products and increased operating costs.

This is not a new phenomenon, as shortages go back as far as 2011. This tangible effect is one that will continue into the future if the deep-rooted issues surrounding engineering education are not addressed. According to Engineering UK’s annual report, 56,000 engineering apprentices are needed every year until 2022.

Using New Technologies

In recent years, the sector has had time to work on modernisation and introduction of digital manufacturing processes. Although this does not solve all the manpower challenges, it is helping manufacturers attract talent into the industry as demand for more software and hardware engineers are required to make this development happen. One very promising trend is that of 3D printing or additive manufacturing. Hardly a day goes by without it featuring in the media. Entire cars can be produced by 3D printing, but in comparison with the automotive sector or more general engineering, aerospace and space technology is much more complex. The prospects for these new production methods are enticing.  Product developers are now able to produce prototypes for presentations and assembly tests very quickly. Many providers are even offering production-quality parts for meaningful tests under real-world conditions, but there aren’t enough people coming forward to take advantage. This situation is compounded by the fact that the market for additive manufacturing processes and prototyping has become more and more opaque. Aside from this, aerospace and space sector companies need to be able to scale up from single parts to full production, to even out wildly fluctuating requirements. The resulting scattering of orders to various suppliers causes a rebound effect, due to increasing administration and coordination which negate the increased effectiveness.

Reassessing Supplier Relationships

The key to the successful application of digital manufacturing methods lies in establishing a new kind of relationship between supplier and client. Because the supply chain is so complex, this is where the hoped-for potential added value can be found. The deep relationship that is needed must be founded on a high level of trust. If the players in the aerospace and space industry can show that they are open to such a new way of working, they will see the desired added value in the shape of process acceleration, efficiencies and cost savings.

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Prototyping: flexible, reliable and fast

Protolabs is a key enabler for the aerospace industry, providing digital manufacturing services with a range of technologies and flexible production capacities - and can even deliver production-quality injection moulded parts overnight. Using an innovative internet platform for producing quotes, with integrated mouldabilty analysis and design tips, customers are provided with instant quotes and feasibility feedback. After approval, it takes just one click to have the part delivered on the next working day.

The advancements in rapid prototyping and on-demand production capabilities has revolutionised the mind-set of product developers. The development cycle is much smoother due to the necessary parts being delivered faster and cheaper. The ability to physically hold production-quality parts significantly faster than previously has proven to be a catalyst for certification and test processes. Protolabs' on-demand production capabilities, coupled with the broad range of manufacturing methods, provides the right level of flexibility, speed and scale to save customers time and money.

Protolabs offers a pathway to modern manufacturing technologies to its clients. Companies that break through the traditional supply and production chain, using prototyping services from companies such as Protolabs, will reap the benefits.