Stephen Dyson, Protolabs, looks at how advanced manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing can be utilised to create a more efficient aerospace industry.

Manufacturers everywhere are facing an increasing demand from their customers for parts to be produced rapidly, at the lowest possible price and without any compromise in the level of quality.

In the aerospace industry in particular, it’s vital that the structural reliability and safety of components is maintained as they move swiftly from initial design to completed part.

Safety precautions such as these are just one of a number of different elements that dictate the pace at which parts can be developed for use in new aeroplanes.

Manufacturing these parts is made slower by the test cycles, inspection procedures and certificates that accompany every step of the process, each of which is non-negotiable when human safety is on the line.

The process is being slowed further still as a result of the shortage of skilled engineers currently plaguing the aerospace industry and the apparent hesitance it exhibits when it comes to employing new, advanced manufacturing technologies.

Serious skills shortage

Because of the global economic downturn, aerospace has had to make a number of cutbacks over the last decade. As conditions improve, though, the next five years are expected to be somewhat kinder to the industry, with experts predicting more than 5% growth. It appears, however, that due to a significant increase in the average age of aerospace engineers, and a lack of interest in the sector from the next generation of school-leavers, achieving this projected gain may not be as straightforward as many would hope.

Half of the employers questioned for a recent survey for Carbon60, for example, blamed issues with recruitment for delays in product development, with three in five expressing concern that a dearth of sufficiently qualified engineers could pose a threat to their business. The extent of the issues is revealed in the findings of the annual report from Engineering UK, which suggests that up to 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians will be required each year until 2024 to plug the skills gap.

Working in aerospace engineering appears to be a considerably less popular career choice than it once was.

Put simply, working in aerospace engineering appears to be considerably less popular than it once was. According to a US study carried out in 2016, two-thirds of young people did not consider manufacturing to be a high-tech career choice. Indeed, graduates now consider big tech companies, such as Apple, Facebook or Google, to be more attractive options.

What’s more, the sector faces the prospect of losing skilled members of its workforce when qualified engineers leave their particular area of expertise to pursue a more lucrative career path in a completely different field, such as IT admin. The manufacturing industry as a whole must, therefore, take steps to address these problematic aspects of education and career development, the impact of which may otherwise be felt for many years to come.

Digitalisation as the way forward

Despite the current skills shortage, the ongoing adoption of advanced digital manufacturing techniques presents a light at the end of the tunnel. Manufacturing, in common with all other industries, is currently undergoing a form of digital transformation in a bid to improve operational efficiencies and customer service.

In order to meet the needs of this transformation, and to stay one step ahead of the technology as it evolves, manufacturers will need to recruit and train a new breed of software and hardware engineers.

Where manufacturing processes may suffer from an outdated perception as being a form of repetitive manual labour, the move toward digitalisation may serve to change hearts and minds and, by doing so, attract the next generation of tech-savvy manufacturers.

Through the use of 3D printing, for example, prototypes can be rapidly turned around for use by product developers in presentations and assembly tests. Some providers even offer production-quality parts that can be used in meaningful tests, carried out in real-world conditions.

Manufacturers can benefit greatly from 3D printing; being able to cheaply and quickly deliver parts, for example, can make the production cycle significantly smoother, while testing and certification processes are improved by the ability to physically hold production-ready parts within days of a design being submitted.

The poster child for advanced manufacturing technology – 3D printing – has been in existence for more than three decades but, as it continues to develop and evolve, still hits the headlines on a regular basis.

Its benefits don’t appear to have been fully recognised by the aerospace industry, however. One issue which could be holding back its more widespread adoption is the wildly fluctuating requirements that have resulted in orders being spread out among a number of different suppliers.

The fact is, the technique is largely ineffective as long as aerospace manufacturers are unable to scale up from single parts and components to full production.

Improving efficiencies

In order to thrive in today’s fast-moving and competitive market, aerospace manufacturers must find ways of improving the efficiency of their product development processes. A large part of this will require the industry to address the current skills shortage, redress the existing misperceptions, and take steps to attract and recruit the members of the workforce needed to make up the deficit. Also key to improving efficiencies is the more widespread adoption of advanced digital manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing.

Modern prototyping technologies provide manufacturers with the opportunity to save time and money, reducing complexity within the supply chain, and adapting it to ensure it meets with growing customer demand for the delivery of more products at higher speed and at lower cost.

These technologies offer the aerospace industry a number of benefits, including increased efficiencies, and faster, smoother production, testing and certification processes. By embracing the technology, and by capitalising on these benefits, companies will be in a good position to deliver the growth that has been predicted.