Mark Howard: on the way to the wing of the future

Mark Howard, Head of R&T.Airbus UK’s R&T chief Mark Howard reflects on the trends that are driving development in the civil aerospace sector

Without wings an aircraft simply can’t get off the ground. It may sound an obvious point to make but is one worth reiterating because as a nation our capability to design and manufacture these complex and crucial structures is world class. The challenge we face is how to keep it that way.

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That’s why we are constantly exploring novel wing concepts looking for the next generation of technological improvements. Much of the progress in the aerospace industry today involves incremental innovation. But we are also looking beyond that with disruptive ideas.

One of our clear drivers is performance. Future aircraft will require increased levels of performance, either improved aerodynamics or reduced weight.

So, at the heart of our work are requirements to reduce CO2 output, cut fuel burn, shrink their noise footprints and hit increasingly stringent environmental targets. How might we do this?

A brilliant example is the folding wing tip. It has long been known by aerodynamicists that long, narrow wings offer a higher lift-to-drag ratio, which, in turn, improves fuel efficiency. But wings on a passenger jet are restricted in span by airport regulations. So why not try folding wing tips that could be extended before flight and then closed up again when back on the ground? It’s early days but it is one idea we are experimenting with here in the UK.

A further challenge is how we go about delivering our products such as the wings against a massive growing worldwide demand for new aircraft. Our annual Global Market Forecast reveals demand for 33,000 additional passenger and cargo aircraft over the next 20 years. We have got to be able to meet that demand and deliver that product.

We can only do that by ensuring we deliver the technologies that can meet the rate requirement (how many aircraft are produced each month and year); the cost requirement (how expensive they are for us and our suppliers to design and build, as well as for the ultimate customer to buy); and the performance requirement (how these machines operate). In short, our wings and other vital components such as fuel systems and landing gear will have to be built faster, be cheaper and be easier to make and assemble.

That kind of initiative can only come with more spending on research and development to explore these new ideas.

Airbus currently invests around £400m on R&D in the UK each year. We are working with the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) on a wide range of projects covering our three prime areas of wing, landing gear and fuel systems. The ATI and the Aerospace Growth Partnership between government and industry means we have a strong financial foundation.

Our new cutting-edge wing integration centre is about to be built at Filton thanks to an investment of some £40m and will benefit Airbus, our suppliers and other partners. It is set to feature a range of modular equipment that enables several complex tests to be carried out at the same time.

A step change in automated production is coming to our factories too.

Some elements of robot-assisted assembly are necessary and desirable. But many improvements are primarily driven by the need to develop our highly skilled workforce, which today are increasingly more like data analysts rather than people who simply fasten pieces of metal together. They need a more sophisticated understanding of the data being generated and the technology being assembled.

Britain’s powerful aerospace business has benefited hugely from the Aerospace Growth Partnership, which has brought together industry and government. The previous administration refreshed strategy around this vital component of UK plc and Theresa May’s renewed enthusiasm for industry is to be welcomed.

A clear strategy around aerospace technology will provide us with an ability to improve the way we currently work with universities and other partners further down our supply chain to ensure we can deliver the right technologies at the right time for the future. Success, therefore, must be founded on collaboration. At a time of intense international competition, dynamic innovation and the greater mobility of skilled engineers, Britain must stay ahead of the game to maintain our position as the world’s second-largest aerospace country.

At Airbus we call our work on all of this the ‘wing of the future’. It is to the future that the whole industry must look if we are to succeed.

Mark Howard, head of UK R&T business development and partnerships at Airbus