How have airplanes changed the modern world

3 things that will shape the future of flying

When Professor George Springer looks out of the window of his office at Stanford University in California, an open-plan jet is flying over the building. He turns north to begin approaching San Francisco International Airport. Then Springer turns to me and says: "Flying is no longer what it used to be."

As a frequent flyer, I have of course heard this assessment many times and now expect nostalgic stories about the golden age of aviation. To my relief, however, Professor Springer has a slightly more optimistic attitude towards the subject we are talking about: flying and the future of aviation.

Passenger numbers are currently growing faster than the International Air Transport Association predicted a few years ago. The number of passengers has increased in the last five years from 2.8 billion to around 3.7 billion - an increase of 30 percent. In order to be able to meet this demand, the airlines are competing to buy new aircraft.

“Flying is no longer just for the privileged few,” says the professor. “Flying makes the whole world accessible for cultural exchange and economic relationships. The world has become smaller because new aircraft are flying farther than ever before - and with less fuel and less environmental impact per passenger-kilometer. "

There are only a few experts who would be better suited to assess the future of aviation. Professor Springer is head of the aerospace department at Stanford University and an advisor to NASA, the US Air Force and the Navy, as well as large aerospace companies - not to mention the successful America’s Cup team, which he accompanied as a scientist.

In his opinion, both the aircraft manufacturers and the airlines are very interested in better environmental compatibility, less noise, longer range and greater payload for their customers: “In order to remain competitive, both airlines and aircraft manufacturers are looking for technological solutions that reduce costs reduce, improve operational efficiency and reduce environmental pollution. "

Although it is certainly true that advances in aerodynamics, the development of non-fossil fuels and the widespread implementation of sophisticated IT solutions have brought these goals closer, Springer sees three other fields of innovation as particularly promising for the future of aviation: materials science , Application of additive manufacturing and engine design.

Fly easier

Conventional materials for engines and cabins of new aircraft are increasingly being replaced by lighter, but high-strength materials. “With the development of the 787 Dreamliner and the 350 XWB, Boeing and Airbus have already started using carbon fiber reinforced composites instead of metal. We will soon see the increased use of composite materials in the new models of the larger short-haul standard fuselage aircraft, ”says Springer with conviction.

This trend in aviation - and of course in other industries as well - is leading to growth in sales of carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRP). According to expert estimates, demand will double between 2014 and 2020 to a market value of around 35 billion US dollars.

In addition to CFRPs, durable, lightweight fabric composites made with cutting-edge technologies from companies like Oerlikon are used in modern aircraft. They are used for seats, in cockpit expansion and in the cabin. As easy-to-maintain materials, they increase operational efficiency and, due to their low weight, reduce fuel consumption at the same time.

The promise of additive manufacturing

In the aerospace industry, additive manufacturing (AM), better known under the name "3D printing", has gone from a relatively simple tool for the rapid manufacture of prototypes to a full-fledged instrument for the manufacture of cockpits and airframes - and engine parts. Springer says: “Parts with complex geometry that would be difficult or impossible to produce with other technologies are now manufactured with the help of AM solutions. We will see a lot more of that in the not too distant future. "

Springer also mentions an almost revolutionary innovation in terms of material properties: only since the introduction of AM has it been possible for aircraft designers to produce individual components that are particularly stiff in one section and particularly elastic in another.

Superalloy powders, such as those developed by Oerlikon Metco, can be crucial to increasing the use of additive manufacturing for complex components in the aircraft of the future.

Engine design is key

In order for the aviation industry to face the competitive demands of the next decades, new engines must be lighter, quieter, stronger and more powerful than ever before. They also need to use less fuel and burn it even cleaner.

Materials science plays an important role, says Professor Springer: "So-called exotic materials, a mixture of metals and ceramics such as aluminides or magnesium enriched with ceramic nanoparticles, will find wide application in aviation." to ensure the high performance of these promising materials under extreme temperature and pressure conditions ”. Such surface solutions, which include both the material and the application processes, lead us to expect a lot for the ongoing improvement in engine performance.

George Springer believes that most of these challenges can be solved with more advanced technologies. Lightweight materials, additive manufacturing and advances in engine design were worthwhile for both economic and ecological reasons. In order to further reduce costs and improve operational efficiency, manufacturers and the airlines they serve would continue down these paths for decades to come. Flying, that's for sure, will no longer be what it is today, even the day after tomorrow.

From Frederic Love