The Covid-19 crisis represents an opportunity to kick-start innovation in the industry

It’s no secret the aerospace industry is not one where innovation happens super fast. When compared to what is commonly called ‘the tech sector’, the difference in pace is striking. In just a couple of decades, mobile phones for example evolved from bulky, single-functionality machines to omnipotent devices that are central to our daily lives. By contrast, despite some important advances in engine technology and avionics, commercial airplane structures are essentially the same today as in the 1960s, with fuselage, wings and tail fulfilling the same functions now as they did then.  

Similar remarks can be made about aircraft manufacturing, for which the manual assembly of parts using rivets still exists, and hasn’t changed much since WWII, or about space exploration, where the amazing breakthroughs of the 1960s when we were able to put a man on the moon have been followed by rather slow progress over subsequent decades.

Of course, there have been evolutions over the past 20 years such as the emergence of composite materials, but according to  Carmelo Lo Faro, president of Solvay’s Composite Materials business unit, “There is value in looking back at the golden age of aerospace in the early 20th century, with its many great pioneers, and wondering why innovation was much quicker then. It’s a question of adopting a different mindset.”
 
Fast forward to 2020... Aerospace is among the industries most affected by the economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like every crisis, there are opportunities to be found here. In fact, this might represent the perfect moment to rethink how this sector embraces innovation. “It’s a wake-up call for us to think about what we need to do better in the future,” says Carmelo.

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The steady rise of composites in aerospace

An important part of that future is bound to be shaped by increasing pressure on the aerospace industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is driving the need for lighter airplanes that consume less kerosene. In light of this, composite materials are clearly a valuable solution. 

Contrary to the main material employed in aerospace, metal, composites are relatively young, only a few decades old. Because they allowed affordable prototyping and low rate production, they were first adopted by the defense and space sectors. In the early 2000s, Solvay contributed to the expansion of composite materials into the commercial market by taking them out of the autoclave so that they could be used to make large structures on one hand, and small parts in large quantities on the other hand, thanks to thermoplastic composites. 

Over the last decade, composites have continued to be further integrated in the production system of airplanes, which led to Solvay’s involvement in the construction of the wings of the A220 and the fan blades of the LEAP engine, for example. With constant material innovations such as resin infusion, fast curing and thermosets, the balance of performance and cost has been continuously leaning in favor of composites, while innovations in bonding technologies have enabled additional weight reductions by progressively allowing to reduce the use of the age-old technology of rivets to assemble parts. “There has been a lot of innovation in composite manufacturing, but it has taken us 20 years,” sums up Carmelo. “And then the Covid-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt. Now all the big players in the industry are deciding which programs come next.”

I believe we can go back to the golden age of aerospace, but to do that, we need less complacency and more inspiration. We really need to think about how we create value through innovation.

Carmelo Lo Faro
President, Solvay Composite Materials

Innovation in aerospace front and center

And that’s indeed a good question: what does come next for aerospace?

In the post-Covid world, supply chains will be disrupted and consolidated while sustainability and alternative propulsion (hybrid-electric, electric and hydrogen) will become serious priorities.

Regarding the space and defense sectors, heightened geopolitical tensions will lead to increased ambitions, with a desire to return to an era of rapid innovation.

As for advanced and urban air mobility, the demand for convenience and contactless operations will most likely continue to drive its development with, there too, an ongoing focus on lightweighting.

Knowing all this, how can the aerospace sector move forward? First of all, by keeping a cool head and putting innovation as a clear priority. “We must seize this opportunity to take a step back,” says Carmelo. “Our passion and aspirations must challenge the status quo to move this industry beyond where we are today.”

In other words, when times are hard, worrying and waiting for the wave to pass isn’t the most productive attitude. Instead, the path to a brighter future involves new patterns such as deepened collaboration throughout the value chain to stimulate innovation and share risks, and strong commitments and support from public authorities to keep the industrial base healthy and help grow the talent this industry needs.

And of course, the industry must make sure it continues to create the best possible conditions for new ideas to emerge. “Now is certainly not the time to cut down on innovation efforts and investments,” confirms Carmelo. “I believe we can go back to the golden age of aerospace, but to do that, we need less complacency and more inspiration. We really need to think about how we create value through innovation.”

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