Anyone who has flown on an airplane, or pays attention to the news, probably says to themselves at one point: “I will never fly on this airline again.” The aviation industry’s customer experience is often a frustrating one, partly due to economics and outdated processes—but it is also partly thanks to the physicality of planes as well, which are expensive and challenging to construct and maintain. Many practices in the aerospace industry are inefficient or obsolete, and fixing them will require embracing new attitudes and technologies.
Unwilling to change
Supply chains are difficult to manage in any industry, and aerospace suffers from particularly outdated processes. Dean Group reports that one out of three companies still operates offline, using fax, email, and telephone as the most common methods for communication and collaboration. 41 percent of businesses have digitized their interaction with customers, but those who have not suffer from strained relationships.
Technician training is also rather antiquated. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dictates which institutions can teach mechanics how to maintain aircraft—but according to The Hill, the FAA’s curriculum has not been updated in over fifty years. Technology is continuously advancing, so mechanics often fall behind when new systems are implemented, and outdated training mandates impede the maintenance industry’s economic growth. This failure to keep up with progress is also exceedingly dangerous for maintaining safety regulations, so the workforce aspect of the aerospace industry is long overdue for modernization.
Old manufacturing processes
In a chapter from the 2004 book New Directions in Manufacturing: Report of a Workshop, John Tracy from The Boeing Company says:
“To keep pace with the competition, Boeing faces several manufacturing process challenges. The order and delivery cycles for transport aircraft since 1958 are fairly regular, between 10 and 12 years long, but are always out of phase. During periods when the airline industry reaps profits, orders for new transport aircraft are placed. However, due to the length of time required for manufacturing, by the time the planes are ready, the airline companies are often facing a low market and therefore withdraw their orders.”
Mr. Tracy notes that even though airplanes have been around for over 100 years, the processes for constructing them need improvement. Some high-priority manufacturing technology areas that need updating include single source production data, integrated design/build/quality and supplier processes, simplified manufacturing planning, and design for manufacturing. There has been significant progress in many of these areas, especially in the years up to 2018, but there is still space to grow.
Aviation Pros says that new technologies in the aerospace industry tend to focus on flight mechanics, breakthrough materials, cabin experience, fuel usage, and cost containment. IT solutions and inventions for maintenance, overhaul, repairs, and facility upkeep are often neglected.
These sectors are critical to safety within the aerospace industry, though, and obsolete systems cannot keep pace with the increasing market pressures placed on maintenance professionals:
“To protect an aircraft’s value, it must be properly maintained over time. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the maintenance records and the market value of an aircraft. The financial value of a multibillion-dollar investment — and safety of the passengers — should not depend on dated printouts, verbal reports, jotted notations, forwarded emails, static spreadsheets, or a checklist on a clipboard.”
It is dangerous and economically unwise for any segment of the industry to be left behind. Whether it is maintenance, configuration management, multi-tier supply chain visibility, equipment and employee certification, or something else, updates to the aerospace field operations are long overdue.
Is there anything that can help?
Separate problems will require different solutions, but there is one innovation that may unite them all and enable rapid modernization: blockchain technology. Blockchain was originally the support system behind Bitcoin, but many professionals have been using it to revolutionize a variety of industries. The system is a decentralized peer-to-peer network (so information is stored in multiple places, deterring cyber attacks and ensuring data safety in case of natural disasters) that records data on a transparent public ledger and displays them immutably. Blockchain removes the need for intermediaries and improves information visibility for all relevant parties, which can dramatically streamline operations and enhance security.
A company named AeroChain is employing blockchain technology in the aerospace sector. The company’s application connects and verifies aeronautic data, enabling transparent financing, valuations, certifications, airworthiness checks, and more. AeroChain avoids leaking data to outside entities while still fact-checking it, so it eases data synthesis and respects informational (and owners’) privacy. Blockchain may just be the infrastructure that the aviation industry has been looking for to upgrade.
The aerospace industry’s inefficiency affects everyone. Even if people do not travel, products do. Air transport is crucial to the economy, and it cannot afford outdated processes and systems. Fortunately, there are solutions on the horizon that will prepare the industry for a changing world.