Thought Leadership

The future of flight has already taken off

By John O'Connor

A confluence of new technologies is transforming the aerospace industry. The trends they’re driving herald the prospect of space tourism, unmanned delivery drones and new aircraft designs, along with the capability to make all flight types safer, faster, more profitable and more environmentally friendly.

The groundbreaking technologies include advances in materials, software and artificial intelligence. OEMs and suppliers must ensure they understand how the interplay among these innovations will affect their businesses and force change in product development and other strategies.

To stay relevant, aerospace companies will need to navigate change and realign to new ways of working and doing business. Let’s look at some of these advances and how they are changing the future the flight.


Composites will continue to impact how aircraft are made, but in more meaningful ways as engineers use modern software applications to extract new materials-driven benefits.

Today’s Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s are built with about 50 percent (by weight) composites and, undoubtedly, future planes will have an even higher percentage.

In the past, incorporating composites was about substituting materials to achieve a lighter aircraft. Now composites are offering the potential to create whole new designs that fully exploit the advantages that composites offer. Wing designs, for instance, can be updated to a more aerodynamically efficient shape that would be expensive and challenging to achieve with a metal structure alone. Because of their superior mechanical properties, composites can be used to develop a wing that is capable of both higher speeds and increased fuel efficiency.

So too in engines, product designers incorporate new composites applications to improve performance. Ceramic-matrix composites (CMCs) are a great example.

Higher fuel efficiency is an ever-present need for plane engines because jet fuel is expensive and has an environmental impact. Parts made from CMCs in and around jet engines allow them to run hotter—and at a higher performance level—than traditional metal alloys. And CMCs are lighter, which also drives innovation in turbofan engine designs.

This is critical, as a one-percent reduction in fuel consumption can save more than $1 million a year for a commercial airplane. The next-generation CMC technology GE Aviation is producing, for example, will improve fuel efficiency by one to two percent.

To make engine components out of composites and other next-generation aerospace materials, it’s critical to have aerospace design and manufacturing applications that can handle the many challenges of designing these parts. These challenges include their complex geometry, the intricate definition of laminates, and the large number of plies and ply stacks that generate enormous amounts of data.

HMI and AI

Human machine interfaces (HMI) and artificial intelligence (AI) augmented with machine learning are making their way into the cockpit. The technologies may sound like something out of a science fiction film, but they’re delivering more information in a clearer context to pilots, helping them make the best possible decisions in relation to such variables as speed, location and weather.

A similar situation is developing with plane maintenance. Smart components and systems can alert maintenance engineers to out-of-range performance or an upcoming service interval. This type of reliable, predictive and data-driven guidance makes flying safer and can help to avoid flight delays.

Airports are large, complex and capital-intensive operations that manage thousands of flights daily. Even a very small change in the efficiency of aircraft management at an airport can lead to a dramatic cost savings for airlines.

Eventually, we can expect the entire air-traffic infrastructure to be automated and incorporate digital machine learning/AI systems. This, too, will improve safety and open huge potential for cost savings. New developments in decision-making and information management at the flight deck, maintenance office, airport management, and air traffic systems level offer a glimpse of exciting new possibilities.

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Avionics-specific software

Advances in software are also driving change, and software’s impact is growing as other types of advances are incorporated into aircraft. By some estimates, the number of lines of source code to control the avionics in an aircraft increases by 400 percent every two years. This becomes unsustainable when the capability to handle change and manage ongoing code overwhelms the design organization.

Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) systems are built precisely to handle this kind of challenge. Choosing the right one, however, is important. The systems must be specialized to the unique challenges of avionics software. They must also be compliant with the regulations of certifying agencies to ensure that the application data is controlled, managed and updated in accordance with aircraft industry-specific requirements.

Technological advances are impacting the larger topic of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) as well, making it more critical that specific development tools are deployed to manage the complexity. Choosing the right PLM solution specialized to the unique needs of aerospace and allowing concurrent development among multidisciplinary teams is increasingly important.

Meeting technology with technology

The future of flight is within reach, and the aerospace industry holds the keys.

Technological advances will spawn new aircraft and new industries—and enhance existing travel and airport management. To succeed in this bright future, aerospace manufacturers must meet technology innovation with their own new technologies. They must continually adapt the latest product development and application management technologies to remain profitable and relevant as advances push the boundaries of what’s possible.

This concludes part one of our series on the future of flight. In part two, we discuss how the future of flight changes PLM

About the author 

John O’Connor is the director of product & market strategy in the Specialized Engineering Software (SES) organization of Siemens PLM Software. SES develops and markets CAD-integrated, specialized engineering software for product design and manufacture in the aerospace, automotive and other design-driven industries. O’Connor has served in numerous roles at Siemens, ranging from application support and technical sales management to business development. Prior to Siemens, he was a senior design engineer at Lockheed Martin, where he led a number of product design teams. He holds a Master of Science in materials engineering and a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering.

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