Today's gloom will evolve into tomorrow's boom.

This month, the international aerospace community convenes for the Paris Air Show. The biannual event is a showcase for the latest technology and cutting-edge designs. Unfortunately, the usually festive atmosphere will be more somber this year. In fact, aspirin will probably be one of the most popular items consumed at the show.

This was supposed to be a banner year for the U.S. aerospace industry, which is celebrating its centennial in 2003. The industry traces its roots to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic powered flight in December 1903.

While the industry is reflecting on its proud past, it faces an uncertain future. Indeed, recent events such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, airline bankruptcies and the Columbia disaster have rocked the marketplace.

But, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), orbital space planes, advanced materials, new assembly techniques and other technical innovations promise to make the industry soar again. Despite today’s gloomy atmosphere, the next decade may see more advances than the past 100 years.

Tough Times

“The effects of the downturn in airline activity since 9/11 have rippled through the aviation manufacturing base of the United States, resulting in lower deliveries of aircraft and related equipment,” says Bill Lewandowski, vice president of supplier management at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA, Washington, DC). “However, the industry is going to rebound. It’s not if; it’s when.”

Many people point a finger at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but various supply and demand factors played a key role behind the current slump. “The commercial aviation industry faced significant challenges even before Sept. 11,” claims Duncan Craig, vice president of A.T. Kearney Inc. (Chicago). “The supply chain was focused on cost reduction and restructuring, but the impact of passenger demand had not yet translated into reduced aircraft demand.”

Most experts predict the U.S. airline industry will return to profitability by 2005. They claim that the cyclical aerospace industry is merely at the bottom trough of an historical series of ups and downs. According to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group Corp. (Fairfax, VA), the current market “is the most challenging environment faced by the world’s manufacturers in several decades.”

Customer demand is off because airline traffic and profitability are down, and “the competitive landscape has been altered by discount carriers,” adds Aboulafia, “to the detriment of the traditional major airlines.” As a result, jetliner orders have fallen off dramatically

“It’s difficult to be optimistic right now, but commercial jet transports will continue to play a dominant role, at least in terms of volume,” says Aboulafia. “Even in a much slower 2003 down cycle market environment, the jetliner segment will be good for over $30 billion in work, about 40 percent of the aircraft industry’s revenues.

“We forecast production of 33,884 aircraft worth $901.9 billion between 2003 and 2012,” Aboulafia points out. “Our numbers exclude uninhabited aircraft, nonturbine aircraft, maintenance, overhaul and research. If all of these were included, the industry would be worth $2 trillion to $3 trillion to the world’s economy over the next 10 years.” Aboulafia predicts that commercial jetliners will continue to account for more than 50 percent of worldwide aircraft production.

This year, for the first time ever, Airbus Industrie (Toulouse, France) is expected to deliver more jetliners than its archrival, Boeing Co. (Chicago). And Airbus is currently ramping up to build an aircraft larger than Boeing’s 747. Next year, the European consortium will begin assembling the A380, a super jumbo jet that will hold 555 passengers and will be capable of cruising 8,150 nautical miles. Boeing’s largest commercial aircraft, the 747, holds 524 passengers and is capable of cruising 7,325 nautical miles.

But, Boeing is not convinced that bigger is better. Instead of engaging in a dogfight with Airbus, the company is focusing its long-term strategy on manufacturing smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft. In sharp contrast, the Boeing 7E7 (the E stands for “efficient”) currently under development features only 200 to 250 seats. The 7E7, which could replace the current 767 family, would be Boeing’s first all-new jetliner since the 777 debuted in 1995.

According to Mike Bair, senior vice president of the 7E7 program, the innovative aircraft would be more efficient, burning 20 percent less fuel than current aircraft. New technologies and lightweight materials, such as composites and advanced aluminum alloys, would drive down the 7E7’s fuel burn rate, with more than 40 percent of the savings coming from new jet engines.

Boeing plans to refine the aircraft’s configuration by the end of this year and begin selling it to airlines in 2004. The first aircraft would roll off the assembly line in 2008.

Bair claims that Boeing has not decided where it will assemble the 7E7. The new plane may not be built at the company’s huge plant in Everett, WA. Some industry analysts believe the company will build a new plant that incorporates state-of-the-art manufacturing. Dallas and Wichita, KS, have been rumored as possible sites for the plant, but some experts believe the airliner might be assembled overseas.

The 7E7 may eventually be called the 787 or may inaugurate an 800 series of aircraft. Bair says the market potential for the new airplane is forecast at up to 3,000 units over the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, the Airbus A380 is scheduled to take to the skies in 2006. The double-decked behemoth has been touted as a “flying palace” with amenities such as shops, exercise rooms and sleeping quarters. Some airplanes may even be equipped with flying casinos. Airbus has received orders for more than 100 super jumbos from 10 carriers with long-haul routes, such as Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas and Singapore Airlines. It is constructing a 120-acre facility to assemble the A380. The first components, such as wings, are currently being fabricated.

With the A380 looming on the horizon, Boeing considered building a super jumbo, such as a double-decked 747, to compete head-to-head with Airbus. It also toyed with the idea of building a super-fast commercial aircraft that would fly at speeds around Mach 0.95—just shy of the speed of sound but about 20 percent faster than today’s jets.

The Sonic Cruiser design attracted widespread attention when it was unveiled 2 years ago. However, many airlines were not willing to invest in the radical plane, which was to feature a unique shape—a double delta-shaped wing and a horizontal stabilizer near the nose. Skeptics argued that the public would not accept the windowless plane.

Some observers predict the traditional “hub and spoke system” of air travel will gradually erode, leading to a greater demand for smaller planes. “Hub-and-spoke airlines have built enormous amounts of waste into their value streams, because to take a trip anywhere the traveler needs to make two flights—one from the origination point to the hub for cross-docking and the second from the hub to their destination,” says Jim Womack, president of the Lean Enterprise Institute Inc. (Brookline, MA).

“When you add in the long changeover times for current aircraft designs, where hundreds of passengers must squeeze through one tiny door to get on and off, and the massive capital and operating costs, it’s not surprising that most travelers are unhappy, either because the product costs too much or because the trip takes too long.”

A new breed of business aircraft, dubbed “air limos” is being developed to address those issues. Manufacturers such as Adam Aircraft Industries Inc. (Englewood, CO), Cessna Aircraft Co. (Wichita, KS) and Eclipse Aviation Corp. (Albuquerque, NM) have announced four-seat-cabin jets designed to ferry business travelers on point-to-point routes at a price comparable to a full-fare coach ticket. The mini jets are expected to hit the market in 2006. The aircraft will cost between $1 million and $3 million and will operate for less than 75 cents a mile.

Military Might

Today, military aircraft are the hottest part of the aerospace market. “While the fighter segment is smaller than the jetliners segment, it is growing, which will help sustain the industry through the ongoing jetliner downturn,” says Teal Group’s Aboulafia.

As a result, some companies are shifting their strategies. For instance, Airbus is courting defense business to lessen its exposure to the airline industry’s volatile cycles. The company is getting ready to launch its first military aircraft, the A400M airlifter.

The Joint Strike Fighter program is another bright spot on the aerospace horizon. Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems (Fort Worth, TX) is building what’s dubbed the world’s first “paperless plane.” Every step of design for the $400 billion project has been done electronically.

The stealthy, next-generation F-35 was designed to meet the performance needs of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, in addition to the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, using a single design. It will replace a wide range of aging fighter planes. However, when the first aircraft roll off the assembly line in 2008, they may be the last manned fighters ever produced.

Future generations of fighters will be robotic, pilotless aircraft called unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). A UCAV transmits signals through high-bandwidth satellite relays to ground stations and piloted aircraft. They are expected to be cheaper to produce and safer to operate than traditional fighter planes. Because there is not a human pilot at risk, UCAVs don’t require the same level of redundancies and fail-safe requirements as traditional fighters. That makes them much less expensive.

A Pentagon planning document called Joint Vision 2020 forecasts that one-third of the U.S. military’s combat planes by that year will be robotic. They will be used to perform “dangerous, dirty and dull missions.” Officials estimate that robotic aircraft will cost less than half as much as piloted fighters, largely because they lack humans. The Pentagon plans to spend $4 billion over the next decade developing UCAV technologies.

Boeing Unmanned Systems (St. Louis) claims that its X-45A robot fighter can be built and operated at one-third the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter. The U.S. Air Force expects to have a squadron of the UCAVs flying by 2007. In their initial deployments, UCAVs will be used to attack enemy radar and antiaircraft installations.

Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems (Dallas) is developing a UCAV for the U.S. Navy. The X-47A Pegasus is a diamond-shaped aircraft that will be launched from aircraft carriers. “The sea service’s only recommendations, so far, are that the aircraft cost be one-third that of a Joint Strike Fighter and the operational expense be half that of an F/A-18 squadron,” says Kenneth Linn, director of business and strategy development for the air combat systems unit of Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems.

The market for UCAVs is expected to expand faster than most other segments of the aerospace industry. Frost & Sullivan Inc. (San Antonio) predicts that the worldwide market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will reach $5.6 billion by 2007. Boeing claims the market for robotic aircraft, including unmanned combat rotorcraft, will reach $10 billion by the end of the decade.

“The potential uses for UAVs outside the military are numerous and increasing,” says Quinton Long, an aviation industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “UAV applications are set to explode in the commercial market once airspace regulations are defined and published.” Potential applications include robotic cargo planes, in addition to weather monitoring and border patrol surveillance.

The U.S. Coast Guard is experimenting with an unmanned tilt-rotor aircraft called the Eagle Eye. With an automated flight control system, with UAV will fly a preprogrammed route at speeds up to 230 mph, which is much faster than the Coast Guard’s manned helicopters. Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. (Fort Worth, TX) recently received a contract to build a fleet of Eagle Eyes, which will be patrolling the nation’s shoreline by 2006.

Some aerospace ex-perts believe UAVs could eventually be used as passenger aircraft. Because the majority of air disasters are caused by pilot error, some observers believe robot aircraft may be the answer.

However, before UAVs rule the sky, the air traffic infrastructure system will need major revisions. “Currently, the complexity of controlling airspace shared by both manned and unmanned systems presents a thorny barrier to the civilian UAV market segment,” Long points out.

With air traffic predicted to double over the next 20 years, airspace integration will become a critical issue. Neither the current air traffic control system nor existing airports will be able to meet the soaring demand for air travel and commerce.

Commercial aviation is approaching gridlock and the existing airspace management system is incapable of accommodating projected growth. “Growth in demand for air transportation ultimately will return to much higher historic levels and will outpace available and currently planned capacity,” warns John Douglass, AIA president and CEO. “Aging infrastructure and often insufficient capacity, coupled with high passenger volume, should make the cause of airport and air traffic management modernization an urgent national priority.”

Assembly Trends

Aerospace manufacturers are under tremendous cost pressures today. According to A.T. Kearney’s Craig, manufacturers are focusing sharply “on cost in response to volume and price reductions.” He says manufacturers are becoming more involved in collaborative partnering on large programs.

“Manufacturing responsibility is going deeper into the supply base as subcontractors are doing more and more assembly,” adds AIA’s Lewandowski. “Suppliers are now providing a significant amount of value-added activities to the prime aircraft builder.”

For instance, unlike traditional Boeing aircraft, the 7E7 program is likely to outsource fuselage assembly to a supplier that will deliver a complete structure including internal components, such as plumbing and wiring. European and Japanese suppliers are expected to play a major role in manufacturing 7E7 components.

Boeing’s board of directors has mandated that the new plane must be built for no more than 60 percent of what it costs to assemble a 777 today. The company has already decided that its suppliers will share a greater portion of the aircraft’s design and development load.

Cost reduction pressures also are forcing aerospace companies to adopt lean manufacturing. “The automotive sector may be the blueprint for the developments taking place in the aerospace industry,” claims Craig. He says aerospace companies have brought in lean manufacturing experts from the automotive industry to share their knowledge.

Two leading automakers synonymous with lean manufacturing have even been exploring the possibility of entering the aerospace market. Honda Motor Co. (Tokyo) is working on a small, twin-engine jet that it hopes will have better fuel economy than existing planes. Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp. (Tokyo) has developed a four-seat, propeller-driven prototype. If tests prove successful, both companies may decide to apply their lean manufacturing expertise to the aerospace industry.

On the plant floor, aerospace manufacturers are harnessing new assembly technology to eliminate waste and improve efficiency. Traditional aircraft assembly is based on structures of riveted aluminum and composites. Riveted structures typically have good peel and shear resistance, but they have limited fatigue strength, are labor-intensive and degrade the exterior appearance of aircraft. Composites can be several times more expensive than steel or aluminum.

To address those issues, some aerospace manufacturers are experimenting with weld-bond processes. “Weld-bond joints are a desirable alternative to rivets because welds overcome the shortcomings of bonds, and vice versa,” says George Ritter, principal research engineer at the Edison Welding Institute (EWI, Columbus, OH). According to Ritter, weld bonding combines the best properties of adhesives and welding, and is much faster than riveting.

“Although welds can nicely replace the rivet with their good peel and good shear resistance, they show poor fatigue resistance,” notes Ritter. “Adhesive bonds, unlike welds, provide exceptionally good fatigue resistance. Their lower peel strength makes them questionable for terminal joints, yet they perform well on intermediate joints.”

After extensive testing, EWI determined that the best weld process is laser welding. “One important advantage of laser welding is that the weld could be made on the inside of the structure under construction, using fiber optic delivery from the outside,” says Ritter. “Conductive heat resistance welding was the next best, but did not provide the surface finish that laser welding did.” According to EWI, the laser weld-bond process could reduce airframe manufacturing costs by 25 percent.

Friction stir welding is another technology being adopted by aerospace manufacturers. “Friction stir welding is highly automated and significantly faster than other structural joining processes,” says Vern Raburn, president of Eclipse Aviation. “It enables a drastic reduction in aircraft assembly time and eliminates the need for thousands of rivets, resulting in reduced assembly costs, better quality joining and stronger, lighter joints.”

Raburn claims that Eclipse is the first aerospace company to use friction stir welding in the assembly of thin-gauge aircraft aluminum. “Friction stir welding is one of the innovations making the Eclipse 500 possible,” explains Raburn. He says the joining process “will replace more than 60 percent of the rivets on major assemblies of the jet, including the cabin, aft fuselage, wings and engine mounts.”

Eclipse recently built a 50,000 square foot facility to accommodate friction stir welding equipment, which will be used to assemble up to 1,500 aircraft per year. Raburn claims the six-person, twin-engine Eclipse 500 will cost “approximately a quarter of today’s small jet aircraft and will be significantly safer, easier and less expensive to fly, enabling the creation of new forms of air travel that will provide much-needed alternatives to the commercial airlines.”

Global positioning system (GPS) technology also is finding its way into cost-sensitive plants. With indoor GPS, assemblers can measure parts precisely and determine exactly where they fit in an airplane. For instance, two transmitters provide sufficient accuracy for some common assembly tasks, such as attaching clips that hold insulation blankets in aircraft.

Boeing engineers are using the Constellation 3Di system from Arc Second Inc. (Dulles, VA) to automate routine tooling inspection, control and align the assembly of large subassemblies, reverse engineer key parts and aircraft components, and monitor real-time deformations during assembly.

Technicians use a handheld wand that is hardwired to a wearable computer to detect infrared light signals from transmitters located on different parts of the assembly area. Each transmitter sends out strobe signals and fan beam signals as it rotates on a stand. As an end user moves the wand from one location to another, it uses the same arrival times of all the different transmitter signals to calculate the spatial coordinates of its tip. Orville and Wilbur Wright never had it so easy.