The ATI conference in November left little doubt that aerospace is entering exciting times, driven by disruptive technologies and industries. This is needed. With the global market for aircraft continuing to grow at above 4.5%, and the explosion of passenger demand expected in Asia over the next two decades, aircraft are becoming a much bigger part of the environmental challenge.

Unlike other transport systems however, doing something about the emissions of aircraft is a particularly thorny problem, as any engineer in the sector will explain. Curbing traffic through legislation is one option for policy makers, but this would be bad for trade and the economy. By far, the better option for us all is to bring new technologies and aircraft designs to market that are more efficient and optimised.

Today’s newest aircraft represent the tail-end in an extensive line of design iterations converging on a design optimum. Unless you are an expert or an enthusiast, it is difficult to tell the difference between one aircraft and another. There are many reasons these designs make sense – the technology available, operational requirements, safety and regulation, to name a few. To continue to make substantial improvement from here, a design paradigm shift is need. From the ATI’s perspective, the technology to dramatically change the way commercial aircraft are designed is rapidly approaching.

For smaller categories of aircraft, it is already here. Electrification could enable hybrid turbo-electric propulsion solutions. If propulsion power can be distributed in this way, it dramatically changes airframe design parameters. A new optimum solution exists.

ATI’s Chief Strategy Officer James McMicking said:

It is not just about technology though. The competitive landscape is changing too. China will enter the twin aisle segment in the next decade, and a multitude of start-ups are targeting global congestion challenges with new solutions for urban mobility. This competitive disruption will be a good thing if it results in greater incentives to innovate.

Over the last year, the Institute has been supporting work in the Aerospace Growth Partnership to understand the importance of High Value Design on the sector’s future prosperity. The work concluded that design capabilities are a critical source of differentiation and competitiveness.

It underlined two basic reasons why the UK should act to boost High Value Design:

  1. Product complexity is increasing and becoming prohibitively costly. Design capabilities are essential to dealing with this complexity and remaining competitive.
  2. The disruptive technology and architectures described above are presenting new opportunities, and will change the demands on major systems.

It also concluded that without national action, these capabilities will decline.

The ATI collaborated with Roland Berger on some of this work, and recently completed a study of 11 institutions in other countries to understand best practices, and the extent to which these institutions are supporting design capabilities.

The benchmarking found that successful institutions always work at the technological cutting edge. Identifying and fast-tracking the most impactful ideas. And they find the best teams and capabilities to deliver them. The activities of these Institutions are draw on a wide range of stakeholders – from Government and Universities, to technological incumbents and start-ups, aligning their incentives with funding and IP to ensure effective collaboration and a holistic positive impact. While incumbents’ know-how and access are crucial to ultimate success, the entrepreneurial mind-set of a new entrant is required to really bring about disruptive change.

The joint ATI and Roland Berger High Value Design report can be downloaded here.

On the surface and to the uninformed, developing design capabilities might be difficult to distinguish from developing technology. However, they are very different. To make a festive analogy of this, making a Christmas pudding requires pulling together in precise order and under certain conditions, individual ingredients. Think of the ingredients as technology and the actions that deliver the target pudding as design. Change anything, the ingredients or way in which they are combined, and the result is different. New ingredients will require or allow new methods and presentation! The point is that aircraft technologies are set to change dramatically, and UK aerospace will need to know how to work with them in the context of the whole aircraft, if it is to retain its aerospace Michelin status.

How much does this matter? The ATI recently published an INSIGHT paper, The Economic Impact of UK Aerospace Industrial Strategy, that uses the Institute’s economic and market modelling tools to project UK aerospace growth under two conditions.

At the recent ATI conference, a third scenario was presented by James. This explored a more ambitious path for the UK and indicated that the industry could reasonably stretch for a further £33 billion GVA in the twenty-year period, or £180 billion to the UK economy in total. This would see the UK capture a further 3% of the global aerospace market by 2035.

James said:

Achieving the third scenario would require further investment in technology, high value design capabilities and supply chain productivity. However, these near-term gains may well be eclipsed by what sits beyond our projection period. With the potential for disruption and a paradigm shift in aircraft design, ensuring the UK is positioned to take advantage of breakthroughs and new markets could be critical to its long-term trajectory beyond 2035. Without deliberate action to develop the country’s design capabilities, the sector’s continued growth will be compromised.