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Achieving Net-Zero aviation will need rapid innovation. Digital engineering can deliver it

Capgemini Engineering
16 Feb 2023

The aviation industry is committed to net zero emissions by 2050.

To enable them to achieve this, aerospace manufacturers are adopting a range of approaches, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), lighter airframes, optimising and automating flights, and whole new propulsion technologies based on hydrogen and batteries.

These systems-level engineering challenges are consuming the top minds in aeronautics. And they want to get there fast. If one company were to create a breakthrough product, there would likely be a rush from airlines to acquire it. Being two years ahead of your competitors could mean capturing billions of Euros, while others fall behind by the same amount.

Different companies are pursuing different approaches to reaching net zero, but all rely on rapid engineering innovation to redesign airframes, wings and engines.

Doing that fast and well requires new digital technologies.

The technologies of digital engineering

Such technologies are coming of age. Digital product design tools, model-based system engineering (MBSE) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems, amongst others, are advancing. But the real benefit comes from joining them up, allowing engineering design to be done smoothly and collaboratively in the cloud.

Cloud-based engineering lets engineers around the world collaborate on design. It offers digital continuity – so teams can see and work on the whole system in one continuous flow. It supports whole system-level simulations, so designers can experiment in silico and understand the impact on not just design but supply chains and in-use emissions. Global test data can be collected and shared to rapidly iterate designs.

Embracing the digital technologies that underpin rapid digital engineering – and more importantly making them work in a joined-up way – will need focus and expertise.

Companies cannot just buy PLM or design software off-the-shelf and slot it into their organisation. They need to make the right choices about the right combinations of products, from a vast and complicated landscape. Deployment into the organisation needs end-to-end changes to IT architecture, data management, and integration with cloud providers. It also needs customization and plugins across the entire system, in line with the organization’s engineering standards, lifecycle methodologies, and innovation plans, in order to ensure that continuity.

But by getting this right – with the right setup and technology choices – aerospace companies can create a cloud-based engineering system that could make net zero innovation as much as ten times faster than current industry-standard approaches.

Learn the lessons of disruption from the Electric Vehicle (EV) industry

This joined-up approach to digital innovation is not without precedent. Tesla was able to create rapid and disruptive innovations by working in a cloud-based PLM, which was directly updated with vehicle sensor and test data. This provided real-time insight, and allowed them to use AI on that data to gather insights and build simulations. It could rapidly experiment, keep operational costs low, and launch products faster than competitors. The company is sometimes said to be more of a software company than a car manufacturer.

Right now the aerospace leaders in this type of rapid digital engineering are regional innovators, such as Lilium, Ascendance, and Universal Hydrogen. These companies are focused on small aircraft, so are not yet competing directly with major aircraft manufacturers. But they are digital natives and have built their products, and companies, around digital engineering technologies. That is allowing them to innovate and iterate very rapidly, much as Tesla did.

Larger companies have other advantages, in the form of deep engineering know-how on larger planes, deep pockets to invest in R&D, and the pressing incentives to deliver big transformative innovations like hydrogen propulsion.

Some large companies aspire to design zero-emissions planes that will fly and carry passengers by the 2040s. To succeed, they will need to mimic the startups when it comes to cloud-based digital engineering. However, unlike the startups, they are not building their business from scratch, so they must overcome the technical and cultural challenges of retrofitting digital technologies into complex global engineering and IT systems that were not designed for them.

Aerospace is an exciting space right now. Lots of innovation will be needed, and there is opportunity for multiple approaches from both startups and longstanding players. And indeed we may see a more supportive environment than the one that disrupted automotive. Planes are harder for startups to sell than cars, and we can easily imagine regional innovators using digital technologies to build new propulsion systems, then partnering with – or being acquired by – larger company with the scale to deploy them into global fleets.

But the big companies must not be complacent – it is not unheard of for a digital native company with a laser focus on sustainable propulsion, to unexpectedly reinvent an industry, leaving established companies on the backfoot. Just ask automotive.

How Capgemini can help

At Capgemini we are constantly investing to ensure we are at the cutting edge of digital engineering, and can support low-carbon innovation across aerospace. We are delivering digital engineering for OEMs like Airbus, for regional disruptors such as Lilium, Ascendance, and Universal Hydrogen, and for governments.

We support our clients in engineering sustainable products, from feasibility studies, to software selection, deployment, customization, and certification. We are the only company that combines expertise in aeronautics and engineering design, with software, data management, and IT, enabling us to help clients build the digital systems that allow them to innovate for net zero aviation