Last updated on February 5th, 2023

Aircraft - AviationOutlook

Aircraft

From the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight in 1903 to the supersonic jets of today, aircraft have become faster and more efficient. The introduction of jet engines in the 1950s revolutionized air travel, allowing planes to reach unprecedented speeds.

The development of composite materials and computerized systems also has greatly improved aircraft performance and safety. Despite challenges such as increasing fuel costs and environmental concerns, the aerospace industry continues to push the boundaries of flight, promising an even brighter future for air travel.

It is amazing how far aircraft technology has advanced in just over a century. From the Wright Flyer to the Airbus A380, we have seen a constant progression towards faster and more efficient flight.

Commercial Aircraft

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Manufacturers

Incremental Innovation in Aircraft

Developing a new aircraft line takes billions of dollars, numerous planning and development, various safety and regulatory hurdles, and convincing the market to place orders to sustain that program for the foreseeable future. Thus, a new aircraft development is a process ‘decades in the making.’ With a large amount of time, money, and effort at stake, the companies do not want to take any risky bet.

However, it does not mean there are no innovations in modern aircraft. Instead of huge groundbreaking designs and technological changes, the manufacturers have opted for the route of ‘incremental innovation.’

Considering the current generation of aircraft with those from just a few decades ago, we can find that modern aircraft are highly fuel efficient, safer, can fly long distances, have more sophisticated control systems, and utilize newer materials such as composites to bring numerous incremental improvements with each newer version. If we look at all the major aircraft manufacturers, they have embraced this trend of bringing updates to their existing products rather than complete redesigns.

For example, Boeing’s upcoming 777X will have composite wings instead of the traditional use of aluminum and optimized blended winglets design to reduce drag and improve takeoff and climb performance. The aircraft also uses the new GE9X engine claimed to provide a 10% increase in fuel efficiency over its predecessors.

More Electric Aircraft

The airlines are constantly trying to optimize performance and reduce operational and maintenance costs. At the same time, there has been a greater push to move towards a greener future with a reduced carbon footprint.

One of the ways to achieve the above-mentioned targets is to gradually move towards More Electric Aircraft (MEA). Recent technological advances have allowed the replacement of certain hydraulic, pneumatic, and mechanical parts and components with fully electric or hybrid systems. MEA helps bring improvements such as a reduction in aircraft weight and fuel consumption as well as a reduction in life cycle operation and maintenance costs.

Boeing, Airbus, NASA, and Siemens are also putting more effort and capital toward the electrification of aircraft.

Although a fully electric large passenger aircraft is a longer-term future, MEA and some forms of smaller all-electric aircraft are already a reality.

Greener Aircraft

As we had earlier discussed in the trend towards ‘incremental innovation,’ a tendency towards the development of greener aircraft for the future is getting a push by governments as well as being embraced by the manufacturers.

Regulatory and political bodies have been playing with the idea of imposing measures to address and offset aviation CO2 emissions. One such measure is CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) which aims to stabilize the CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset their CO2 emissions growth after 2020.

Under this measure, the airlines will have to monitor their CO2 emissions and offset them by purchasing emission units from other emission-reducing sectors.

These scenarios have led to the emergence of new companies with greener aircraft development plans, and other larger incumbent companies are also spending billions to start or back such projects.

    • The German company Lilium has raised $100 million for its all-electric five-passenger aircraft and promises to enter the market with its product within the next couple of years.
    • Boeing has acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, which is involved in the development of ‘electric propulsion systems for VTOL aircraft.
    • Boeing has also backed Zunum Aero, a startup that plans to bring hybrid-electric passenger aircraft to market.
    • Airbus has created an ‘E-aircraft System House’ that mainly outlooks Airbus’ electric aircraft activities. Airbus expects that a 50-100 seat hybrid electric aircraft will become a widespread reality by 2035.  
    • On May 22, 2019, Airbus and SAS signed a joint MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) to research hybrid electric aircraft development with the aim of large-scale commercial use.
    • Other companies and bodies such as NASA, European Commission (ENFICA-FC –  ENvironmentally Friendly Inter City Aircraft powered by Fuel Cells), Siemens (Extra Ea-300 project), and Uber (Uber Elevate program) are also working towards the development of greener aircraft for the future.

Use of 3D Printing in Aircraft Manufacturing Process

3D Printing is one of the promising technologies that is already being used in aircraft parts manufacturing and aircraft MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul).

3D Printing has opened up ample opportunities to improve the aircraft manufacturing process. It allows the manufacturing of various highly complex designs that were not possible earlier with conventional manufacturing techniques. 3D printing is also comparatively cost-effective for producing low-volume and highly complex parts, as is prevalent in the aerospace industry.

3D printing also helps towards the goal of aircraft weight reduction. GE has been using 3D printing technology on various aircraft engine parts, including for the GEnx engines. The company said that 3D printing has led to a reduction in weight by 10% and a reduction in material waste by up to 90% for certain aircraft engine parts. GE is already investing around USD 6 billion a year in the R&D of aerospace 3D printing applications.

3D printing is also beneficial to the aircraft MRO sector by enabling the possibility of on-demand manufacturing. It will help reduce the need to stockpile inventory of parts and make parts available as required, reducing the risk of aircraft downtime. Etihad Airways is already deploying 3D printing technology in-house (for non-critical components), which will ease the airline’s refurbishing or retrofit efforts to a great extent. Etihad has received EASA approval to certify, manufacture, and fly 3D-printed non-flying parts.

Customer Experience-Based Design Approach

Service enhancement and the ultimate customer experience are critical in the aviation industry. As airlines have been trying to attract and retain customers through improved travel experiences, they have started to put more thought into the design and layout of the aircraft, especially the cabin section.

Airbus was the first manufacturer to introduce ambient lighting as a default option on its commercial aircraft. Controlled brightness levels, colors, and dynamic lighting transitions during different phases of flight have been found to provide a more pleasant experience to the customer. Airbus says such features can also reduce the effects of jet lag by stimulating sunrise or sunset based on the passenger’s travel hours and destination.

OEMs are also trying to improve the quietness in the aircraft cabin design. The noise-reduced environment (especially reducing the engine noise inside the cabin) can lead to the feeling of a refreshing and stress-free flying experience.

Cabin pressure is another important factor that plays a critical role in helping maintain comfort while flying. Most of the older generation jet aircraft fuselage was made of aluminum and could generally maintain the cabin air pressure equivalent to the level at an altitude of 8,000 feet. However, newer aircraft such as the 787 Dreamliner and 777X use composite materials in the fuselage, which are less susceptible to fatigue as compared to aluminum. This allows more control of cabin air pressurization. As a result, the 787 and upcoming 777X cabins can maintain air pressure equivalent to an altitude of 6,000 feet. Boeing says this change in aircraft cabin pressurization will also greatly help reduce the jet lag effect on passengers.

Aging Aircraft 

As aircraft age, they require increased maintenance and potentially costly repairs. Airlines have a few options when it comes to managing aging aircraft. They can continue to operate and maintain the aircraft, make significant upgrades to extend its life, or retire the aircraft and replace it with a newer model.

Some airlines continue operating aging aircraft as long as it is economically viable and meets safety standards. However, this can be a risky and costly decision as older aircraft may require more frequent maintenance and unexpected repairs.

Other airlines invest in upgrades for their aging aircraft, which can extend their useful life and improve efficiency. This may include installing new engines or updated avionics systems.

Finally, airlines may retire aging aircraft and replace them with newer models. While this can be a significant investment, it may ultimately be more cost-effective in the long run.

Overall, each airline must weigh the cost and benefits of managing aging aircraft and make decisions based on their specific needs and resources.

It is expected that more regional and single-aisle aircraft will get replaced over the next decade. According to Bombardier, 86 percent of the current 100-150 seat aircraft fleet segment will be ready to retire by 2036.

Furthermore, as oil prices rise, airlines will have to make strategic fleet decisions about fuel savings to improve profitability.

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Dipesh Dhital
Dipesh Dhital

Dipesh is the founder of aviationoutlook.com and an avid follower and enthusiast of aviation/aerospace industry. He has background in aerospace engineering and MBA (Aviation Management). “I am an advocate for the new technological advancements in aviation/aerospace industry. I have been avidly following the developments in drone industry, electric aircraft as well as emerging technologies (such as AR/VR, 3D Printing, IoT, AI and Blockchain), which will have huge impact on aviation/aerospace industry in near future”.

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