ABU DHABI: As a major contributor to global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – international air transport alone contributes US$2.7 trillion – the aerospace industry has enjoyed a sustained peak, driven by continued market demand. In a panel at the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), aerospace leaders discussed the future of an industry that supports 10 million people globally through direct employment, with an additional 63.5 million supported indirectly.
The panel was composed of Jan Pie, Secretary General, Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), and Chairman Elect, International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA); Michel Peters, CEO, NLR (Netherlands Aerospace Centre); Robert S. Harward, Vice Admiral USN (Ret) SEAL and Chief Executive – UAE, Lockheed Martin International, and Tetsuro Hisano, Vice President and General Manager of Commercial Airplane Programs Management Office, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-Large, Reuters, moderated the conversation.
While the outlook is rosy, there are still a number of challenges in the aerospace industry that need to be addressed – such as market demand growing at 45 per cent on an annual basis. There are around 17,000 aircraft currently flying with a capacity of at least 100 passengers or capable of carrying 10 tonnes of goods or more. In 20 years time, there will need to be around 30,000 aircraft available – and, according to Jan Pie, a number of the existing aircraft will no longer be in operation in 20 years, even with upgrades.
“If we look backwards over the past few decades, or even the last century, this has been an industry that has seen a remarkable growth,” said Pie. “As we speak the order books are full for the two largest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, for the coming ten years. We can talk about the market’s next upturn, but we don’t yet know when the downturn will come.”
Michel Peters, speaking about the capacity requirements on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), said: “To meet the demand of 30,000 aircraft in the next 20 years, the big OEMs, such as Boeing and Airbus, have to turn out approximately 60 aircraft a month. That’s nothing special for an automotive manufacturer, but 60 aircraft a month is really something. That means that lot of technology will be used, adapted from car manufacturers. Phasing manufacturing automation together with the design of the aircraft itself can cut some corners, whilst keeping up with the safety and quality standards.”
Other key issues the industry faces include safety, even though air travel today is safer than ever; connectivity, in terms of connecting all aspects of air travel – including aircraft, passengers, ground services and more; the introduction of pilotless drones to the market, and the total integration of drones into the environment without compromising on safety. Fuel, too, is a matter that the industry is looking at, given fluctuating prices of oil and further research into green alternatives.
There are people looking at green fuel substitutes, according to Tetsuro Hisano. “We have lots of very innovative companies that are looking at, for example, using sunshine to create fuel from forms of bacteria, and harnessing the energy produced to create oil. It is not yet commercially feasible. When oil prices are at $100 per barrel, then these ideas become more feasible, but in these days, when fuel goes down below $50 per barrel, it is less feasible … so oil price drives innovation in this field.”
“In our profession, the military drives technology,” said Robert S. Harward, speaking on the influence of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies on aerospace, and referencing the push of the USA Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, to transform Navy fleets to be completely driven by biofuels. “That’s what forced industry to respond. I think those sorts of requirements then help drive the change quicker than industry would do it on its own.” On the matter of 4IR and the potential for job loss, Harward said that “technology puts people first; people stay ahead of the artificial intelligence curve.”