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We must ensure the UK remains as a world leader in aerostructures, including design, integration, manufacture and assembly of the most efficient wings and other high-value structures.
The design, development and manufacture of aircraft structures, notably wings, constitutes around 25 per cent of the sector’s economic activity in the UK. UK suppliers also export state-of-the-art components and sub-assemblies for nacelles, empennages and fuselages for all leading aerospace manufacturers globally. The UK possesses the right expertise, technology and infrastructure to be at the forefront of the design and manufacture of the next generation of lightweight, digitally enabled, multi-functional aerostructures. Advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing and the use of composites enable greater component functionality, lighter and stronger structures and greater efficiency from the overall airframe. Improving aerodynamic performance and lowering structural weight is important to reducing the environmental impact of aircraft in the future.
The UK needs to retain its leadership in highly integrated structures through investing in technologies for advanced design, materials and high-rate manufacturing.
Aircraft production is expected to continue to increase to meet demand. To ensure the UK benefits from this growth, it must retain leading capabilities in the design and manufacture of wings and other structures. This will require advanced design methods and tools, and materials development, enabling improved functional design. These must support increased production rates and reduced costs.
Conventional manufacturing techniques have often constrained structural designs or led to sub-optimal components. Processes such as additive manufacturing and friction welding will enable components to be manufactured and assembled in many new ways. Future wing designs will take advantage of these processes, utilising more functional sub-components optimised to many parameters. The ATI will support projects which develop state-of-the-art manufacturing processes and the associated design methods and tools.
Materials development is key to unlocking the full potential of composites and processes such as additive manufacturing. The use of composite materials on aircraft has steadily increased, accounting for some 53 per cent of the A350. Composite design techniques, such as aeroelastic tailoring, will allow components to manage aircraft loads more efficiently. Metal will retain an important role, including new alloys necessary to optimise additive manufacturing processes and material properties. The ATI will encourage the development of metals and composites technologies that can improve aircraft performance and reduce weight, and the rapid certification of new materials.
To develop and grow capability in the design and production of complex multi-functional structures, the UK must drive further collaborative programmes.
To create more efficient and cost-effective aircraft, systems and structures are becoming more complex and integrated. Structural components will be designed to fulfil multiple duties, supporting both systems and loads. Future structural components must therefore be designed with multi-functionality in mind.
The most demanding structural integration challenges are expected to come with the advent of new propulsion, power and energy storage systems, in addition to more complex aerodynamic features. An emerging trend is ‘wire-in’ composites, permitting the transmission of data or power through a structure and avoiding additional components or assembly. The ATI will support technologies and projects which enable high-power-density electrical systems to be fully integrated into the vehicle’s structure – enabling weight reduction and efficient thermal management.
High-performance electrical actuation and the improved aeroelastic characteristics afforded by composites will allow future structures to morph into their most efficient shape throughout flight. Multi-functional structures are also needed for active laminar flow to improve vehicle aerodynamics. Designs will need to take advantage of new manufacturing techniques to improve the precision of joints and incorporate durable hydrophobic and protective coatings to mitigate wing icing and erosion. The ATI will support collaborative projects to address these manufacturing and operational challenges.
The UK must invest in technologies to transform aerostructure assembly from being manually intensive into a highly automated, digitised, and self-optimising operation.
To remain competitive, the UK must improve manufacturing precision and repeatability by developing the next generation of smart automated assembly processes, tools and flexible assembly cells.
Traditional airframe assembly and component sub-assembly is laborious, involving drilling, disassembly, fettling and shimming. In future, component assembly will be automated, with processes carried out from one side of the structure, increasing productivity and factory safety. To achieve this, the ATI will promote increased use of reconfigurable automation and other enabling technologies, such as large-scale metrology and one-way drilling.
The creation of high-fidelity learning models, through the continual input of live data, will enable highly precise and repeatable assemblies. These dynamic models will depend on connected assembly machines, factories and ultimately entire supply chains. Data shared across these networks can be used to update models and to bring together components with similar degrees of accuracy. These are the priorities for the assembly of large-scale aerostructures, but they also apply to the assembly of propulsion and system components.