Making the Right Investments for Aerospace Manufacturing

Making the Right Investments for Aerospace Manufacturing

Can you introduce your organisation and give an insight into its capabilities and competencies?

Sonaca Group is a significant player in the aerospace, commercial aviation, and defence sectors. We have a relatively large footprint on three major continents, especially Europe, and the North and South Americas. This extensive presence enables us to conduct a vast portfolio of activities to enhance our business.

Amongst our competencies, the most notable is our engineering section. It enables us to develop both metallic and composite technologies to provide high-quality, efficient, and reliable integrated structures. Around 50 percent of our activity is ‘Design and Build,’ where we develop and manufacture an assembly of aircraft movables and their mechanisms. We are amongst the very few players with the ability to supply detailed work packages for many of the biggest OEMs in the world.

We are striving to expand our service portfolio while continuously investigating and investing in R&D to cater to the next generation of aviation technologies.

What are some of the prevailing challenges in the aerospace manufacturing industry?

Pandemic or not, aerospace manufacturers face several challenges on a daily basis. But the biggest challenges that affect continuity and efficiency are weak supply chains, talent gaps, and technology.

As globalisation continues, the ability of the supply chain to ramp up quickly and meet all customer demands is getting hampered. The shortage of raw materials, high prices, and labour inflation, combined with the bureaucracy and compliance issues between overseas and trading partners, are forcing manufacturers to invest most of their time and resources in bridging their supply chain.

There is also a shift in perception concerning the manufacturing industry due to the lack of adequate training programs and management initiatives. The youth have shifted their mind. Our industry is not necessarily the most attractive in the current paradigm. With the existing workers reaching retirement age, the risk of a skills shortage is a genuine threat to productivity and efficiency.

The world is taking a conscious step towards sustainability, and we are also catering to that. Augmenting the sustainability initiatives, the governments are also encouraging and facilitating these changes through regulations, but the challenge is when they expect manufacturers to accelerate the plan toward zero emissions. 

As aircraft have a deceptively long operating life, it is challenging to adapt aging aircraft to the evolving emissions criteria. There needs to be a life-cycle-oriented sustainability assessment of aircraft to determine the extent of reparability that can be done on the particular aircraft. This will immensely help companies like us to fine-tune procedures and alter only warrantable aircrafts.

What technological innovations are you implementing to deal with emerging industry challenges?

We are developing and implementing electrical systems in cabins and replacing the traditional way of powering systems that use the propulsive power of planes. Because of this electrification, we expect to see more batteries, fuel cells, and energy storage. They will all have to be integrated into the global aircraft system and will play a crucial role in the shift toward sustainability.

“It is essential to open communication channels so that employees can communicate effectively and provide their suggestions, comments, or complaints”

The weight reduction of the aircraft and improvement of overall performance is also a priority. Heavier aircraft need bigger engines, which results in larger carbon footprints. Due to the increasing reduction of emission demands, there is a bigger push for companies to adopt this change. We cater to this demand by using composite materials, which we have extensive expertise in. For instance, parts are manufactured using a variety of materials, including epoxies, BMI, polycyanates, polyimides, and thermoplastics. Since we are responsible for the major components on the wing, we work on the improvement through our production-process facilities like the press, high-temperature autoclaves, and out-of-autoclave composite manufacturing as resin transfer moulding (RTM) and SQRTM.

As aerospace is a competitive industry, we try and invest in newer technology in alignment with Industry 4.0. This allows us to reduce considerable maintenance costs and other aspects of the aircraft.

How do you leverage your ‘Build to Print’ strategy to develop innovative and sustainable aircraft?

First, we try to understand customers’ requirements as they are generally interested in not changing the definition but changing the process of manufacturing clients’ parts. We regularly adopt newer technologies and processes to be on the edge of our capabilities. Automation increases our competitiveness, and with the advent of Industry 4.0, we are working towards newer possibilities to be more competitive in the market.

What advice would you give to your peers or the industry leaders for them to streamline their manufacturing processes and achieve better outcomes?

Aerospace manufacturing is complex, requiring numerous processes performed by automation and human resources in huge facilities. So, it pays to keep an eye on the inefficiencies and rectify them accordingly. This also extends to the supply chain. Always scrutinise suppliers when quantifying the manufacturing process. If you find someone consistently giving you better materials, parts, or tools, reward them by giving more of your business.

If your process is plagued with downtime, reach out to your employees for answers. So, it is no surprise that those responsible for fulfilling orders have some ideas to make the process more efficient. Open communication channels must be available so that employees can communicate effectively and provide suggestions, comments, or complaints.

Organisations must understand that there is no substitute for hands-on, real-world training. So, train employees on multiple troubleshooting processes, function as substitutes, and provide relief during repetitive tasks. Furthermore, everyone on the manufacturing floor ought to have a good grasp of the entire process so that it will help plug pitfalls should they arise.

Benchmarking can also play a role in improving business processes. Leaders should always be curious and benchmark themselves with the competition. Ask for customer feedback because that is where they will get the best advice to innovate and implement.

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