2020 is a year that will live in infamy for many industries. We haven't even seen the full effect of Covid-19 on economies, which inserts a heap of uncertainty into decision making for manufacturers. But one thing is for sure: we're not going to get back to business as usual anytime soon.
The aerospace industry has been in a bit of tailspin and it's going to take a lot of shrewdness and gumption to pull up from this nosedive.
Michel Merluzeau, Director for Aerospace & Defense Market Analysis, Air Insight Research, said the pandemic has been the “most significant, most disruptive event for the entire industry.” Even noting the impact of 9/11 on air travel was nowhere near as catastrophic as the decline has been in 2020.
The choices manufacturing OEMs make has a significant impact on what happens to their suppliers and when major changes occur in an industry as large as aerospace, it reverberates throughout the supply chain.
So, what can manufacturers of aircraft do and what can they expect for the future?
There is a lot of hard earned doom and gloom in many industries at the end of 2020; but there are creative and resourceful ways that manufacturers can maintain a level of continuity and shift focus to innovations that will ensure they’re prepared to meet the moment when production rates rebound.
Taking this time to re-evaluate processes and optimize out inefficiencies that had crept in over the years is a great place to start. The manufacturers who make quality assurance their overriding priority will see how investments in zero-defect production during this transitional season will position them to be at the forefront of the recovery.
The great idea to help save the aerospace industry is: For manufacturers to cut costs and remain resilient, they must employ surface quality management programs that offer high-resolution, data-rich, predictive analytics that can unwaveringly be trusted.
Aerospace Industry’s 2020 Projections Vs. 2020 Reality
According to a recent report by S&P Global, the top five industries, world-wide, most harmed by the coronavirus pandemic are:
- Oil and Drilling
- Auto Parts and Equipment
According to their analysis of the markets and likelihood of companies in these various industries to default, companies within the aerospace sector are the most at risk.
2019 wasn’t as strong as 2018 for commercial aviation but 2020 was ramping up to clear a lot of hurdles from the previous year.
But all of that changed once a deadly pandemic began making it unsafe to fly.
Governments all over the world began restricting travel and it became extremely difficult to know what activities put you more at risk of contracting the virus, therefore, endeavors that put you in close quarters with strangers was a bridge too far.
“When Covid hit in Q1, everyone stopped traveling on every type of airplane, everywhere.” said Emily Wittman, President & CEO of Aerospace Futures Alliance.
The amount of passengers hit their lowest point in April, dropping to 95% compared with a year earlier.
This steep decline in airline travel had major and immediate ramifications for manufacturers. Boeing, one of the world’s biggest aerospace OEMs, projects to produce 240 planes in 2020, just 30% of what they built in 2019. Projections from OEMs like Boeing were originally extremely healthy for large aircraft which set suppliers up for having their own lofty expectations.
When airlines grounded their fleets and manufacturers delayed, and then halted plans to build as many aircraft as intended, it put vendors who machine, clean, assemble, coat and finish the planes in a dire situation.
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But those who were able to adapt and devote resources to controlling the surface conditions that make adhesion processes produce strong and reliable, have been able to look to the future expectantly and encouraged.
To ensure durable assemblies and strong adhesion of coatings and paints, the factors that affect these outcomes must be controlled. The surfaces of materials being joined together or painted must have a precise chemical composition that is much more delicate than manufacturers may realize. Through abrading, flame treating, removing of peel ply and dozens of other surface preparation operations, the chemical state of the surfaces are being changed. And if it is not composed exactly as is required for strong adhesion, then the bonds and coatings are extremely vulnerable to failure.
This is the reality in manufacturing across all industries. We’ve all become familiar with how powerful something microscopic can be. The top few molecular layers of a material’s surface are all that stand between a production line that seems mysterious intermittent failures causing rising rework costs and a production line that has virtually no downtime due to adhesion failures.
How Aerospace Manufacturers Have Weathered Covid-19: Advanced Air Mobility, Defense and Smart Tech
Most crises can be an opportunity for businesses to rely on failsafes they had put in place ahead of time. Catastrophes put the screws to companies in ways that are nearly impossible to adequately plan for. The aerospace industry saw major losses across all companies involved in getting airplanes into the air.
Airlines reduced their international schedules by 40-90% and relied entirely on the smaller (and somewhat less truncated, but still diminished) domestic schedules. This obviously meant the jobs of pilots, flight staff and the hundreds to thousands of people who work at airports were in peril.
Manufacturers throughout the entire supply chain made deep cuts to their workforce as well. But there is more light at the end of this tunnel than might be apparent at first glance.
Contracts with the commercial side of the aerospace industry are no longer the sure thing they were ten months ago, but the military and defense sector has enjoyed a stability that has allowed for some manufacturers to become suppliers to the government. Defense in the United States is still well-funded and military projects have been a strategic priority even during the pandemic.
In a similar way, Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) has been steadily increasing aerospace market share as an emerging technology. Pilotless aircraft and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) research and development does not rely on passengers the way that commercial aviation does at this point, somewhat insulating them from the worst effects of the pandemic. So, these technologies have been a valuable ballast for some manufacturers who were able to pivot to supplying these makers with parts.
Parts manufacturers have also shifted to building for complimentary industries outside of aerospace.
With all this supply chain mobility happening, it is all the more important to implement strong, resilient and easily communicated quality programs that are built on objective data shared between manufacturers and their vendors. When suppliers have quantitative quality goals and the right inspection equipment to ensure those goals are met, then OEMs can be confident the parts they receive have consistent surface quality and can track changes to swiftly correct the issue.
Adopting new tech has helped stave off potential disruptions to the manufacturing side of the aerospace industry. But, with novel and advanced materials there is higher risk of unforeseen problems that occur when trying to bond, coat, paint or otherwise adhere to those materials. That risk can be mitigated if the elements that lead to strong, reliable adhesion are understood and controlled.
With leaner crews that have been called upon to adopt multiple roles in production, automated smart sensors are able to take some of the pressure off technicians who have no extra bandwidth for failures arising. Consistency between work shifts bolstered by intuitive and direct process monitoring equipment means plant managers can have a less overwhelmed crew, many of whom might have had to slide into a new role in production.
Intelligent data collection, that makes it clear when equipment is not producing the proper cleanliness levels or surface conditions for perfect adhesion, is essential to an efficient process that is able to still operate at high rates even with a skeleton crew, or a scattered crew.
Quality engineers are not as close to the action as they used to be and travel restrictions have made it extremely problematic to try and traverse the miles between one office and a production facility. Precision data gathered on real parts, sending critical information in real time can make a meaningful difference in expenses traditionally required to do remote process monitoring.
Cutting costs by reducing the time required to put out quality-related fires, getting the most out of cleaning and treatment processes, eradicating scrap and rework means that crews that were laid off or furloughed can get back to work sooner.
Putting greater emphasis on the things that can be controlled is key to proactive process control as opposed to reactive troubleshooting. This has been the approach Boeing has taken in response to the pandemic and ensuing production descent. Boeing said it’s working with suppliers on issues related to financial health.
Boeing also said, “We are using this downturn to re-focus our energy on safety, quality and a stable production system for the future, both within Boeing and our extended supply chain.”
The Role of Maintenance and Repair Operations During the Time of Covid
The amount of grounded plans has grown exponentially in the last few months, but they won’t always be out of commission.
The most optimistic projections say that it’ll take between 1.5 to 2 years before production will get back to pre-Covid rates. Although most airlines are projected a much longer lull in travel, saying that it’ll be about 5 to 10 years before demand for flying is where it was in 2019.
In either case, this can be an opportunity to take a closer look at maintenance and repair operations (MRO). With an emphasis on quality and shoring up communication between facilities that work on planes, aircraft manufacturers can use the same objective quality controls employed to shrink the distance between quality engineers and production, and ensure maintenance programs are meeting the highest quality standards.
MRO companies need surface quality inspection technology that links their abrading, cleaning and surface preparation methods and outcomes to those of the original manufacturer. In order to reduce the risk that the layers of coatings and paint used on the exteriors of planes will chip, flake, degrade and open the body of the plane up to possible corrosion, objective quality measurements are required. These measurements need to be able to be taken in the field on already assembled aircraft, something most cleanliness inspection devices simply cannot do.
With the right inspection equipment and surface quality specifications that are employable across every facility and department that plays a role in building and maintaining aircraft, these planes can be in pristine condition once air travel ramps back up.
Updates are necessary to keep downed planes in working order. When they are inevitably called back into action they need to be in line with the ever-evolving safety standards and the demands of a public who, rightfully, don’t want to ride plans that have not been properly maintained.
Southwest Airlines is looking at replacing some of their decades old planes in their fleet. They are hoping for models with advanced designs and fuel efficiencies to change out their old stock with. These kinds of updates are helping push the standards of all aircraft higher and higher. Taking the time to make sure planes not being used at the moment are ready to meet the moment when they return to rotation is time well spent.
The Outlook for Aerospace Manufacturing
The unexpected pandemic has shaken everything up but using the proven methods of keeping each other safe (i.e. wearing facemasks and washing our hands often for at least 20 seconds) and an impending vaccine means that slowly, but surely, we will be able to see industries return stronger than ever.
Overall projections for 2021 show the aerospace industry at only 70% of its 2019 levels but that increase will only continue.
The pandemic has reminded us of how small our planet is in so many ways and how connected we all are. Once people feel safe doing so, they will be flying all over the world again and probably with more frequency and gusto than ever since we are all a little sick of staying home. Those shorter distance flights mentioned earlier are already starting to put some wind beneath the wings of some airlines and is increasing the need for smaller, more efficient planes. An industry that has utterly changed global commerce through innovation, science and creative ingenuity, will be able to face this challenge and thrive in the coming years.
To gain valuable insight into how to make your production lines, supply chain and MRO processes as resilient as possible, download our free eBook about what paths to take to guarantee adhesion issues no longer hold you back from building the most reliable products possible. The Manufacturer’s Roadmap to Eliminating Adhesion Issues in Production is your guide to creating and maintaining the most effective adhesion and cleaning processes.