As some of the world’s leading research engineers set their sights on manufacturing aircrafts in a more integrated way than ever before, suppliers in the sector must be prepared to collaborate and, where necessary, merge their activities.
While aircraft manufacturers have improved fuel consumption significantly, little has changed over the last few decades in terms of modernising the concept of an aircraft. However, excitement is growing at ONERA, a leading research laboratory in France, about a research project known as NOVA, which could soon make it possible to deliver game-changing performance benefits for OEMs by manufacturing the engine and fuselage in a more integrated way.
The NOVA concept is a medium-haul aircraft, which is available in four configurations, exploring the potential of ultra-high bypass ratio (UHBR) engine integration. It is designed to carry 180 passengers on 3,000 nautical miles (equivalent to a B737-900) at Mach 0,82 and is aiming for market entry by 2030. Aiming to increase propulsive efficiency and reduce drag, the concept’s configurations feature geared turbofan engines, which are more fuel-efficient and silent, but also larger and heavier.
They also feature some innovative engine integration options such as under-wing engines, which create a ‘gull-wing’ shape, and fuselage-mounted engines, which are conventionally podded or semi-buried into the fuselage and fed by boundary layer ingesting air intake for increased propulsive efficiency.
Traditionally, engine manufacturers, such as Rolls Royce, and aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, have operated two, distinct supply chains and there has been little collaboration between them. Depending on the outcome of the current concept trials, which have reached modelling and simulation stage, they could be required to work as one in the future
The NOVA research project has reached a critical stage and there is considerable optimism about the extent of the performance benefits that could be achievable for aircraft manufacturers in the future; leading to a considerable reduction in fuel consumption, noise and emissions in line with more stringent legislation.
When they are industry ready, the innovative aircraft configurations that are currently under development could cause significant disruption to existing supply chains. Suppliers will need to be more closely involved in the design phase and work in a more integrated way. There is also an opportunity for early movers to gain an advantage by striking up collaborative relationships, or joint ventures, in readiness for the advances that are coming.
As well as creating opportunities, greater involvement in the design phase could also bring greater risks for some suppliers and will require a level of collaboration that goes beyond some of the existing ‘extended enterprise’ initiatives.
The customisation trend is already requiring suppliers to collaborate more closely and the technological advances that are just beginning to bear fruit at ONERA could take this to a new level. Joint ventures are already an established part of engine manufacturing supply chains, for example the partnership between Snecma and GE Aviation, but such collaboration is likely to become more complex in the future and include aircraft manufacturers too, especially for engine-integrated design, production and maintenance.