Is the Aviation Industry Innovating Fast Enough to Deliver Sustainable Design?

This year has been one of significant milestones for the aviation industry. Two examples are Boeing’s hundredth year and the UK Royal Aeronautical Society’s 150th. Times like this provide a chance to reflect on some of the key technical innovations that have made major contributions to performance, safety, comfort, economy, energy innovation and sustainable design in the industry.

It is a pleasure to look back through the archives such as Boeing’s and review the progress that has been made over the years.

Last weekend I was fortunate to be able to pay a visit to the U.K.’s Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington. The museum makes it possible to experience firsthand the transition from the wood and canvas of a century ago to the advanced aircraft of the recent past. It is truly awe-inspiring. Planes very much like the ones shown here are on display.

aviation industry Vintage British training aircraft Avro 504K. 1918

But while we can sit back with pride and reflect on where the industry has come from and how it has got to where it is today, it is equally valid to look at the challenges that lie ahead.

On Oct. 5, in this its 150th anniversary year, I was honored to deliver a keynote talk at the Royal Aeronautical Society 5th Aircraft Structural Design Conference in Manchester, UK, alongside Technical Fellows from Rolls Royce and Boeing. The conference challenged the speakers and attendees to address and discuss the issues facing the designers of next generation aircraft. They specifically called out performance and efficiency, environmental constraints and manufacturing and life cycle costs. These themes were very similar to the points made in a recent article from Aviation Week concerning the problems aviation still has to solve: cleaner, quieter, faster, closer and cheaper. From the presentations and discussions at the conference it was very clear that much progress is being made toward these goals.

But are we innovating fast enough and with the same spirit of adventure we have seen over the past century to be able to address these challenges effectively?

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), aircraft produced today are 80 percent more fuel efficient per passenger kilometer than they were in the 1960s. And that same organization very recently announced an industry wide deal that has been brokered to further limit greenhouse gasses from international aviation.

In a summary article by the BBC about this agreement, Britain’s Aviation Minister Lord Ahmad was quoted as saying, “191 countries have sent a clear message that aviation will play its part in combating climate change.” Others agreed,  but not everyone. An environmentalist was quoted in the article as saying “airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth.” Perhaps more worrying was the commentary in the article that stated, “Airlines are striving to make planes more efficient, but the industry can’t innovate fast enough to contain its dynamic growth.”

So there is divided opinion on whether the current pace of incremental innovation is going to get us to where we need to be as an industry. Perhaps we can use this anniversary year as an excuse to look back on the spirit of the original pioneers. When Wilbur and Orville Wright first dreamed of flying they cannot have imagined they were taking the first step for man that would become a giant leap for mankind. Nevertheless they relentlessly explored unchartered design territory with the tools available at the time and succeeded in making that breakthrough.

Today, with advanced technologies and the power of simulation driven product development, you have the power to rapidly explore an almost infinitely larger design space than the Wright brothers could. 

I encourage you to join our conversation on breakthrough energy innovation and participate in the technical knowledge sharing on five key topics related to: Machine and Fuel Efficiency; Thermal Optimization; Advanced Electrification; Aerodynamic Design; Lightweighting.

Perhaps you can be the one to take the step with simulation driven innovation to become a pioneer and drive tomorrow’s unimagined breakthrough leap for the industry and mankind.

One thought on “Is the Aviation Industry Innovating Fast Enough to Deliver Sustainable Design?

  1. Hi Rob. We are trying to do better. And CAE can provide more and more effective tools. Sometime we need to look back in the past to restore old concepts. A promising improvement are the morphing wings: difficult to implement with current aeronautical structures but used (and patented) by Wright brothers!

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