Aircraft Interiors: Taking Product Innovation To The Skies

In a guest Talking Point, Tom Edwards, president, North America operations and aerospace at Cyient, looks at the aircraft interiors market and how innovation has become ever-more critical.

 In a guest Talking Point, Tom Edwards, president, North America operations and aerospace at Cyient, looks at the aircraft interiors market and how innovation has become ever-more critical.

With air passenger numbers continually on the rise – set to double over the next 20 years – the commercial aerospace industry is soaring, and Boeing’s and Airbus’ build rates are at record levels. Buoyed by this confidence and spurred on by a rising battle between airlines to retrofit dated aircraft, the interiors market is growing at an impressive rate. In fact, it is one of the most dynamic sectors in aerospace. 

In response to high customer expectations and demands for continuous innovation, it has evolved considerably in recent years and we’re starting to see new product groups emerge. At the same time however, there are signs that manufacturers are struggling with the ability to balance the thirst for production with the drive for product innovation. 

In the first of this three-part series, I look to explore how the major players in the market can address this so that they can reap the benefits of a segment that’s performing so well. 

The global surge in aircraft production rates and Airbus’ record delivery number for 2015 has had a dramatic impact on the interiors market as it scrambles to meet demands. Equally, external pressures, such as fuel prices and increased safety measures have created a need for more lightweight materials and intuitive space-saving solutions. 

In the European market, the impact of this is going to be felt particularly heavily, as a direct result of airlines’ incorporation into the European Union Emission Trading System. This involves new financial penalties for airlines that are tied to the amount of CO2 emissions produced, and could result in an increase in European airlines’ retrofit and fleet exchange programs, as they look to cut fuel consumption. It will also drive increased demand for new cabin interiors made from advanced, lightweight materials, that can reduce fuel consumption and the CO2 emissions per passenger.

The interiors marketplace is therefore faced with a rise in aircraft cabin interior spending through retrofits, and a subsequently exciting drive for product innovation. But is there such thing as too much opportunity? 

The main cabin segment is being hit by a growing demand for new materials that both reduce aircraft weight and allow each passenger extra personal and luggage space. But, with a wide range of aircraft operators with very diverse needs – ranging from cheaper short haul carriers to the decadence of long-haul first class cabins – catering to this demand is a big challenge for this sector.

Equally, manufacturers and suppliers need to be able to maintain flexibility under these time pressure conditions. If last minute alterations are requested, they must be able to accommodate these within the original timescale, as the rest of the production line continues to march to that original pace. Expectations of this level have become common place. 

While new aircraft programs bring new opportunities for manufacturers to increase their market share and present new technologies, the level of competition is also expected to increase, as aircraft OEMs look to diversify their supply chain. In fact, this has already attracted several new entrants to the aircraft interiors market over the past few years – a sign of things to come. For example, Counterpoint has identified that there are now 21 companies offering commercial airline seats, compared with just eight companies 10 years ago – yet Airbus and Boeing plan to decrease their number of cabin interior suppliers. 

A perfect storm for the interiors market is emerging as manufacturers face a constant juggling act of an increase in orders, a concurrent rise in competition, and a need to innovate. In addition to this, the market is having to contend with very high certification requirements, which make new product development and innovation a long and expensive process.

However, we also see the supply chain struggling to keep up with this higher demand cycle, and some have fallen short recently and been unable to meet targets. Effective management of the supply chain is crucial. There is a limit to how far it can be pushed and at current levels we risk tipping the balance and stretching it beyond its means.  

It will certainly be an interesting space to watch over the next few months as companies battle for a vital edge over the competition and position themselves to ensure supply chain stability. 

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