Ensuring aerospace innovation meets tomorrow’s challenges

Viewpoint

Ivor Ichikowitz, executive chairman of South African defence organisation Paramount Group, explains the benefits of coupling manufacturing and R&D for aerospace innovation.

The world is becoming a perilously uncertain place.

Over recent decades, threats have become increasingly asymmetrical, both in their form and occurrence. For nations across the world, this challenging environment is increasing the need for versatile aerospace and defence technology that can support their efforts in efficiently building security, supporting economic growth, and providing stability to their citizens, core industries and institutions.

aerospace innovation
The Mwari aircraft allows rapid turnaround time from design to factory floor

Ongoing security challenges in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, highlight a growing need for state-of-the-art aerospace systems and aircraft that can perform multiple mission-types with greater reliability and technological efficiency in challenging environments. This presents two questions: First, how do we better equip governments with the aerospace capabilities needed to tackle such threats when the world is changing so rapidly? Second, how do we ensure that today’s R&D is going to meet challenges of tomorrow which we cannot yet predict?

R&D and engineering programmes conducted by the aerospace sector have traditionally orientated towards large national defence procurement programmes, the high-volume manufacturing of rolling stock aircraft to meet the requirements of national airforces over the course of several years. The critical importance of these types of projects cannot be overstated, of course, and they will continue to play a large part in meeting the macro national security demands for some time to come.

However, expensive and lengthy R&D and manufacturing processes are typical of these types of defence programmes. As a consequence of this, whilst offering effective large-scale solutions to large-scale problems, they will nevertheless fail to meet the requirements of reactive innovation, efficiency and quick turnaround times that are needed to help governments keep pace with the more nuanced and evolving security threats that are becoming more prevalent.

Whilst appearing complex, there is a simple answer to this paradoxical question: increasing the role for nimble and more innovative aerospace and defence companies in the development and supply of defence capabilities.

Nimble and customer-focussed companies in the aerospace sector are inherently built upon the foundations of rapid innovation. They are often established to deliver, or have grown in response to, a specific requirement or niche, enabling them to produce innovative technologies far more rapidly than larger organisations who have to manage multiple technology programmes on an often epic scale.

But smaller doesn’t necessarily mean nimble. It’s the increasing availability and uptake of digital design, simulation and manufacturing processes which will allow smaller, more innovative suppliers, from anywhere in the world to carve out a niche in the market.

Here at Paramount Group, along with other global innovators, we eradicate the inefficient sub-supply chains and place emphasis on close-coupling the engineering and manufacturing processes; primarily by adopting ground-breaking approaches to prototyping and manufacturing through advanced Kinematics, CFD analysis, and advanced 3D printing.

This philosophy, which we adopted in the creation of our new Mwari aircraft, a militarised multipurpose variant of our AHRLAC aircraft, allows for a quicker turn-around time from design to factory floor and an ability to make rapid adjustments to specifications. This swift process allows us to constantly modify aircraft in order to keep pace with external technological and security advancements – without having to re-engineer a complex manufacturing system or rebuild a supply chain.

One of the interesting by-products of this growth of digitized R&D and manufacturing is that new centres of engineering excellence can develop rapidly around the world. We are proudly African, and we believe this gives us a unique insight into the defence challenges facing some of the most unpredictable regions of the world. But traditionally being based in Africa would have been a hindrance in terms of developing the major R&D or manufacturing facilities. However, with bespoke digital design and manufacturing capabilities it’s possible for us to design and manufacture our products anywhere in the world.

This type of engineering excellence is key to creating equipment that is built for purpose and equipping militaries with bespoke equipment, which is designed to meet today’s threats. In order for this to happen, however, we must see development in two ways: firstly, robust global partnerships between the industry’s traditional leaders and smaller firms. They will give small firms a platform to play a bigger global role and bring their innovations to market more effectively; whilst simultaneously giving large aerospace and defence companies opportunity to tap into their niche experience and innovation.

Secondly, it is also important to acknowledge that the challenge to work differently and more flexibly does not rest solely on the shoulders of our industry, as governments must also recognise that the changing security landscape, coupled with long term pressure on budgets, requires a new approach to procurement and purchasing. Governments need to shift away from a sole reliance on the traditional one size fits all procurement programmes to an outlook that acknowledges the need for purpose built equipment to meet defined real time needs, and this may come from new niche entrants, rather than traditional OEMs.

The world is changing, and so too must approaches to design and engineering. Customer-focused innovative companies are at the forefront of digital innovation and engineering excellence, and as such, bringing them into the mainstream would reassure our industry’s ability to sustain its critical relevance in helping governments to safeguard citizens and critical interests in the face of increasingly pertinent assymetrical threats.