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The aerospace industry faces unprecedented growth–and the challenges that come with it

by Andrew Brooks

The aerospace sector plays a starring role in Canadian manufacturing. Its 700 firms directly and indirectly support more than 200,000 jobs and contribute $28 billion in GDP. The “State of Canada’s Aerospace Industry Report,” released in June 2017 by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, named aerospace as the top manufacturing investor in R&D. In 2016 it generated nearly 30 per cent of Canadian manufacturing R&D investment.

Canada’s exports of aerospace supply chain components (as opposed to final products) have grown 20 per cent over the last decade and a half and now represent more than 60 per cent of all aerospace product exports–mostly engines and landing gear and associated systems and components.

Impressive as that may be, the sector’s anticipated growth is more impressive still, says Jim Quick, AIAC president and CEO. 

“The global figures we see from Bombardier, Boeing and Airbus show the industry growing at roughly five per cent a year over the next 15 years,” Quick says. That growth expectation is based on demand from the three aircraft manufacturers for 41,000 new aircraft over the next two decades, which translates into about $6 trillion in global business. “From that perspective, I think it’s pretty good.”

Aerospace growth also reflects the fact that airliner fleets are aging, and need increased maintenance and repair. This means aerospace maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) have been steadily increasing in importance. Over the last seven years, Quick says MRO has grown to about 30 per cent of the business and represents one of its most dynamic segments. 

While aerospace manufacturing continues to be concentrated in Quebec and Ontario, MRO is more evenly distributed. Today, Western and Atlantic provinces host nearly two thirds of Canada’s aerospace MRO business, much higher than their one-fifth share on the manufacturing side.

 

Growing pains
Rapid growth is always welcome, but it brings challenges for everyone in the aerospace supply chain. Trinity Aerospace of Mississauga, ON, started life in 2000 as a sheet metal fabrication shop, and has expanded quickly, adding CNC machining and aerospace engineering services and doing work for OEMs, airlines and MRO providers. 

Today Trinity does a large percentage of its work on the Bombardier Global bizjet platform as well as the Dash-8 turboprop airliners.

Operations manager Vinod Bal runs down some of the company numbers that illustrate how dynamic the aerospace sector is right now. “On the Global, Bombardier has orders all the way up to 2025, so we’re in a comfortable spot with regards to growth. We’ve gone from about $4 million a year to $8 million in just over two years. We’ve grown from nine people in 2012 to 55 to 65.” 

Aside from the perennial challenge of finding and keeping skilled employees, Trinity has responded to increasing demand by embarking on a program of vertical integration, lessening its dependence on external suppliers by bringing more and more operations in-house. The latest solution is heat treatment.

“All the parts we make require heat treatment,” Bal says. “In the past we’d have to send them out, but we’re in the final stages of getting our own heat treatment commissioned. With the heat treatment capability, we will be able to make parts faster and cheaper.” Trinity invested more than half a million in the project. 

Trinity has also been expanding its machine pool, directly and also through DICI Industries, a Montreal based precision machining and assembly shop it acquired in 2013 in partnership with Altitude Engineering. “DICI has added five axis and three axis machines to its fleet,” Bal says. “Here at Trinity we’re adding a machine for routing sheet metal. We’re expanding our capabilities and capacity.”

Plans for the next two years include bringing paint finishing in-house, Bal says. “Once we’ve done that, we’ll be able to do almost all the work ourselves; we’ll only need to go to outside suppliers for special processes.”

The human resources side is challenging in any kind of manufacturing, but it poses special problems in aerospace, Bal says.

“In the initial years of a program, we’re in design and preproduction and we need designers and engineers. Once production is locked in, you don’t need that many engineers anymore; you need production people on the floor to do the assembly. The good people get hired fairly quickly and you have to pay a lot of money to get them, which becomes a challenge for us because we have to keep our bidding costs in line.”

A current example is Bombardier’s Global business jet program. With the aircraft entering production, Bombardier ramped up its own hiring, which in turn drove higher turnover at companies like Trinity.

“You train people to do the work… and then you lose them,” Bal says. “So we have a buddy system in production, where senior people mentor the younger guys. This way when a senior person leaves there’s someone who can take over with the least amount of effort.”

 

Automation for data’s sake
The adoption of automation is a priority in aerospace, as it is in any other sphere of manufacturing. The reasons here may be slightly different, however. In aerospace the goal isn’t to replace human labour per se but to optimize the use of data to continually improve process efficiency, along with the quality and uniformity of produced parts. 

Also, as production becomes more and more globally distributed, data-driven automation offers a way to ensure uniformity in the finished part, says Jim Kosmala, vice president, Engineering and Technology, Okuma America, Charlotte, NC.

“I think of something Deming once said; ‘without data, you’re just another person with an opinion,’” Kosmala says. “That also applies to the way we depend on the ‘tribal’ knowledge people acquire when they’ve spent years making a part. The problem is those people are turning over more and more, and now that we’re making parts in different plants, different parts of the country–even different countries in some cases–you have to be able to base what you’re doing on data, not tribal knowledge. We’re not talking about robots replacing humans. It’s about decoupling the human judgment call from the process, basing those decisions on data.”

The years ahead promise higher demand–and higher manufacturing volumes–for aerospace suppliers, a challenge they will have to meet by ramping up capacity, as Trinity and others are doing. But there are other challenges, notably the constant need to build lighter aircraft. It’s here that additive manufacturing may change the rules of the game in a fundamental way.

Kosmala has watched the rise of additive manufacturing, and believes that new hybrid machine tools that combine additive manufacturing and subtractive machining under one hood can leverage the advantages of each. Okuma is one of several machine tool manufacturers that has hybrids on the market now.

“It’s still in the early stages,” Kosmala says. “There isn’t yet as much demand as there is for traditional metal cutting machines, but it’ll be more important in the future. It seems you can’t go to an additive conference these days without a major manufacturer showing some component or sub-assembly they’ve reduced from, say, over 400 parts to under 100.”

Hybrid machining truly comes into its own on parts with interior surfaces that require high precision finishing, but will be inaccessible when the part is finished. “If you have a required surface finish tolerance that is very tight, and the part is so complex that you wouldn’t be able to machine all aspects of it when the part is finished, you can do three or five layups, then machine it, then do more layups, then machine it again,” Kosmala says. “You can machine as you go.” 

The full potential of hybrid machining has yet to be leveraged at the level of parts design. “With hybrid machines, additive will really take off when parts are designed that require an additive component,” Kosmala says. “Things like hollow turbine blades, parts with interior cavities that couldn’t be machined before. I think aerospace will drive that, back all the way to the PLM side of product design. They haven’t had these tools before, and now it’s starting to open their eyes.” SMT

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