Digitalization in the Aerospace Sector

From Product Design to Manufacturing & Operations

The aerospace and defense industry has laid ambitious plans to reconcile mobility with sustainability. Sustainable aviation fuels, electrification, hydrogen-powered aircraft and eVTOLS (electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft) are just some of the current developments leading to profound changes in the way we think, design, engineer, manufacture, maintain and operate aircraft. Disruptive innovation brings in great excitement. For aerospace companies, it also comes with its share of risk and uncertainty, especially when it is associated with significant changes in architecture or introducing new materials and processes.

The more we change, the less we can rely on experience. OEMs have come to realize that digitalization is key to competitive product development today. But like any transformation, it's easier said than done. Recently, Rolls-Royce unveiled plans to become a “Digital First” company, articulating its strategy around a new concept called Digital “O”. As Rolls-Royce puts it, “The Digital “O” is recognition of how physical and digital capabilities must seamlessly combine in order to deliver cutting-edge value propositions for our customers.” The framework shown in Figure 1 is useful to illustrate the complementary digital aspects of modelling and simulation to the traditional design and verification stages of a product lifecycle.

Figure 1. Rolls-Royce's Digital “O” framework. (Image: © Rolls-Royce)

Today, as aerospace companies are travelling along their transformation journey, it's time to shed light on the palpable benefits of digitalization, bringing visible value to leading aerospace organizations and sustaining product development at each and every step from design to manufacturing, all the way to operations. Let's look at a few practical examples.

Getting Virtual Pre-Certification Right the First Time

As the aerospace industry faces sustainability challenges, seat supplier Expliseat offers airlines the ability to reduce both fuel costs and CO2 emissions. Expliseat's ultralight seats weigh around 6 kg each (an average of 4 kg less than traditional seats), use 50% fewer parts, and this without compromising passenger safety or comfort.

Expliseat's advanced digital capabilities are one of their greatest assets. “Our first model, TiSeatE1, has been the first-ever aircraft seat to be developed fully digitally. We managed to develop a seat with ‘Zero Prototype’, in the sense that we fully relied on simulation to make the right choices at the right time, from product design until Virtual Pre-Certification,” explains Benjamin Saada, Chairman of Expliseat. “We did not produce any physical prototype until the final one required for certification by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which confirmed that our product successfully complied with all safety requirements.”

Figure 2. Simulation on Expliseat's TiSeat E2 seat model. (Image: © Expliseat)

The TiSeatE2 program embodies the success of cross-platform development at Expliseat. The model has now been deployed on four different aircraft types. Eighty percent of the parts are common to all four variations. “We hope to raise this even more in the coming years, as we know it's possible to achieve up to ninety percent similarity in the automotive industry,” says Saada.

Widespread in the automotive industry, cross-platform development is based on using the same parts for multiple product variations. By working on similar underpinnings, yet offering distinct designs or functionalities, manufacturers successfully answer the need for customization, while keeping development costs to a minimum. “Platform development is still emerging in the aerospace industry. When we saw what ESI's automotive customers could do with simulation, we understood that replicating proven simulation processes would be a strategic asset for Expliseat.”

Saada is convinced that his company can achieve further weight reduction thanks to new manufacturing processes, but this will require redesigning or reoptimizing a certain number of product parts. “Relying on simulation will help us in further reducing seat weight by precisely raising parts robustness where needed while decreasing it where we have greater margins,” explains Saada.

Virtual Manufacturing to Achieve Sustainability Goals with Less Risk

Figure 3. Immersive Virtual Reality assembly process review at Safran Nacelles. (Image courtesy of Safran Nacelles)

SAAB Aerospace Systems are constantly looking for structures with as low weight as possible to reduce CO 2 emissions. Within the Clean Sky 2 project, Saab Aerospace Systems are developing the next generation cargo doors using the latest manufacturing techniques for composites manufacturing, additive manufacturing, sheet metal forming, welding, and assembly. For one of their cargo door demonstrators (TD5), Saab Aerospace Systems used virtual prototyping to refine the resin injection strategy. Advancing their digital processes helped them define leaner manufacturing and assembly processes and reduce tooling costs.

The ultimate goal when using composites simulation software is to replace design complexity by consistency to optimize the performance of the final product, so that the manufacturer is free to pursue innovation without the risk of disruption, in a financially sustainable way. At Spirit AeroSystems engineers have relied on manufacturing process simulation for large, complex components up to 20 meters in size. “Mitigating all these risks, not only have we been able to deliver a successfully manufactured demonstrator on time, first time, cost and time savings were made through the use of the manufacturing process simulation.”, says Conrad Jones, Senior Composite Development Engineer from Spirit AeroSystems.

Manufacturing aircraft engines with minimal carbon footprint and successfully shifting towards SAF, electric and hybrid aero engine models in a sustainable, zero defects, and rework fashion is a professed goal for engine suppliers. Nick Calcutt, Materials and Process Modeling Engineer at Rolls-Royce, and his team successfully developed a co-design workflow for casting simulation that designers within Rolls-Royce use to analyze designs within 10 minutes, support Design for Manufacture (DfM) reviews, and enable faster diagnoses of issues in manufacturing. Thus, it helps them make their designs castable without knowing the supplier's IP surrounding the casting process.

When it comes to manufacturing and assembly process design, many aerospace companies are investing in Virtual Reality (VR) to run immersive process design reviews. Using industrial grade VR enables them to discover potential issues as early as possible in product development, while it's still possible to make adjustments. This is the case at Safran, who presented their advanced VR capabilities at the Paris Air Show in 2019. Nicolas Lepape, VR and Simulation Expert at SAFRAN at the time, explained, “Safran uses ESI's virtual reality solution IC.IDO to visualize things before they even exist, anticipate as much as we can, and deliver better ergonomics for our factory operations. We get return on investment by achieving first-time-right product and process designs, in technical terms, but also for factory layouts and safety aspects. All in all, we estimate a 15-percent saving in our total tooling budget.”

Figure 4. Nicolas Lepape, Safran, using a VR headset to demonstrate virtual reality capabilities at the Paris Air Show in 2019. (Image courtesy of Safran/Manufacturing)

Virtual Prototyping Extends Capabilities

In past years, the concept of the digital twin has spread across all industrial sectors. Using advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence for analyzing data collected by sensors and/or historical data, digital twins serve as a digital counterpart that mirrors the “health” of real products, while they are in operation. They can be used for monitoring and diagnosis to optimize asset performance and utilization to control or reduce operational costs. If digital twins provide valuable performance-related insights for operators and operating companies, they could bring even more value if they were connected to the existing product data originated during product development, and particularly, when you think of the data related to physics, that engineers use to thoroughly understand the way products behave. Moreover, their fully data-driven foundation makes it difficult to use them when addressing prognostics.

ESI recently contributed to the Man-Machine Teaming project sponsored by the Direction Générale de l’Armement and led by Dassault Aviation and Thales. Working towards the robotization of future aircraft, ESI was tasked with sustaining the development of “Aircraft Twins” - of course, to enable man and machine to team up in the best possible way, and to perform diagnostics, prognostics and realtime decision making for predictive or operational maintenance and planning. Another objective specific to this project is to support pilots in making mission-critical decisions in real time in case sensors are not functioning properly, or if aircraft parts show signs of deterioration.

Accelerate Digitalization

The above examples show that virtual prototyping is a proven digital methodology to achieve reliable, accelerated, cost-effective workflows by chaining product development, manufacturing operations, and product maintenance. It is reducing the need for physical tests and prototypes, hence minimizing material waste and energy consumption involved in both product development and production. In a nutshell, it is sustainable in every way.

The next step on the digitalization journey is to move towards a holistic digital thread solution, empowering end-to-end model-based engineering processes in order to bring engineering performance to the next level of maturity. Collins Aerospace, for instance, looks into developing a platform that embeds workflows from requirements to design validation process, links system design with respect to verification methods, and enables real-time collaboration in a new challenge for the company to make engineering more reliable and valuable. “There's a strong need to integrate workflows and tools seamlessly, to build one single source of truth that offers engineers the ability to efficiently assess the full picture of new electrified aircraft systems virtually - as it would be in reality - and make informed decisions about their performance early,” said Lionel Yapi, Modeling and Simulation Engineer/Systems and Performance Department at Collins Aerospace.

This article was written by Slaheddine Frikha, Aerospace Industry Director, ESI Group (Rungis, France). For more information, visit here .


  3. Saab Aerospace's recorded presentation at ESI LIVE 2021
  5. Rolls-Royce's recorded presentation at ESI LIVE 2021
  6. From video published by
  7. Blog post
  8. Collins Aerospace‘s recorded presentation at ESI LIVE 2021