Aerospace’s future promise

With proliferation of innovation centers, is the aerospace industry poised for a renewal?

Tony Velocci
6 December 2017

6 min read

While segments of the aerospace industry are still growing, its rate of innovation has slowed as risk-averse companies invest less in breakthrough technology. The spread of innovation centers may help reverse this trend, however, providing companies with relatively low-risk environments in which to test proof-of-concept ideas before committing their own resources.

For all the new technologies created by the aerospace industry over the past 100 years — commercial aircraft, jet engines, global positioning systems (GPS), and weather and communication satellites, among others — most advances have been incremental, even slow. Even today, the vast majority of innovations are more accretive than transformative.

But with the rapid spread of aerospace-focused innovation centers, the pace of game-changing advances may be poised to accelerate. These disruptive knowledge ecosystems allow researchers from industry and academia to further the state of the art in digital product design and manufacturing, create totally new technologies and processes and hasten the rate at which they develop.

Such capabilities are critical to the future of aerospace companies, which face unprecedented challenges, said Tom Captain, former vice chairman and also former head of the aerospace and defense practice of Deloitte Consulting.

“Aerospace continues to create successful innovations, yet there are troubling indicators that all is not well,” Captain said. “For example, most cutting-edge innovation in aerospace is coming out of startup companies, and that is a strong signal to big companies they should not take their incumbency for granted. They know their future will depend on their ability to keep up.”


The industry has a long track record of delivering products late and over budget, and customers ranging from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to end users of aviation platforms and spacecraft have started holding equipment suppliers more accountable. Airlines and military customers are hammering suppliers to innovate more, bring products to market faster and lower costs, even as air vehicles of all types grow more complex.

Suppliers to OEMs, in turn, are under mounting pressure to steer their operations toward Industry 4.0 — smart, digitally connected factories that leverage the Internet of Things (IoT) to accelerate throughput, improve quality, eliminate inventories and reduce waste.

Brian Christensen of Dassault Systèmes points out design features on a digital mockup of the Unmanned Aerial System, a joint project with Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research. (Image © Dassault Systèmes)

Non-traditional players such as Blue Origin and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, have demonstrated a remarkable ability to upend mature markets, leapfrogging long-time industry leaders in developing reusable booster rockets, for example.

“If you can disrupt the space launch market, there is no other market that cannot be disrupted,” said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow in the International Security program and director of the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit policy research organization.

Aerospace suppliers of all sizes also face the challenge of attracting the next generation of innovators.

“With the exception of highly agile organizations such as SpaceX that have avoided the risk-avoidance culture of traditional aerospace companies, it’s getting increasingly tough for the industry to compete with the pay scales and the excitement of entrepreneurial enterprises in other fields,” Captain said.

None of these challenges existed or were as severe a decade ago, according to Tom Milon, principal of The Boston Consulting Group, an international management-consulting firm based in Boston.

Innovation centers, however, represent a new opportunity for companies to think differently about how they create value for their customers, and can provide the proving grounds for companies to rethink their approaches to manufacturing and product design. “Innovation centers will allow R&D professionals to transform their ideas into fully functioning, high-fidelity models and systems prior to committing actual resources,” Milon said.


The newest such facility is in Wichita, Kansas, at the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University (WSU). The center focuses on enabling advanced product development and manufacturing using immersive and robotic applications, plus the institutes’ expertise in materials and simulation.

“Aerospace companies that have investigated what the center offers are amazed at what they can achieve, which is what this place is all about – thinking out of the box and proving the feasibility of a concept,” said John S. Tomblin, executive director of NIAR and WSU vice president for Research and Technology Transfer. “What you can do is limited only by your imagination, and this is where you can prove it.”

When the center opened in April 2017, R&D executives from more than 50 suppliers toured the facility. Soon afterward, some of those companies began formulating feasibility projects to develop and test at the center.

One early leader is Airbus, which leverages the center’s world-class laboratories for proofs of concept, as well as helping Airbus establish a pipeline of future engineering talent.

Aerospace & Defense executives tour the Multi-Robotic Advanced Manufacturing Lab at Wichita State University’s new Aerospace & Defense innovation center. (Image © Dassault Systèmes)

For example, a multifunctional team from the airframe manufacturer wanted to validate the design criteria for a primary aircraft subassembly and develop answers to technical and business questions, all in less than 90 days. In addition to Airbus researchers in Wichita, engineers in Toulouse, France, where the company assembles all of its commercial jets, participated in the fast-track initiative, dubbed “Sprint.”

The team met its goal in just 84 days, in part by using cloud-based collaborative simulation tools to optimize the integration of components and refine the design in near-real time.

“We considered the project highly successful,” said John O’Leary, vice president of engineering for Airbus Americas. “It showed that the center on the Innovation Campus has a unique capability, and it is the only place where we can co-locate a research team and perform this kind of collaborative, rapid innovation.”


 Innovation centers are increasingly common across the industry landscape, but they are relatively new to aerospace — and their numbers are growing.

Centers similar to Wichita’s are being set up around the world, with support from local, regional and national governments intent upon establishing or expanding their aerospace industries to be more competitive globally.

Asia-Pacific countries, for example, have long considered development of an indigenous aerospace industry a prime opportunity to stimulate technology renewal, job creation and overall economic growth. Some of those countries, including China and Japan, have been working at it for decades, just as Brazil and Canada did before Embraer and Bombardier, respectively, emerged as major players in the 1990s. With demand for air travel projected to rise at a rate of 4.5% annually over the next 20 years, the opportunity to claim some of the growth is ripe.

Advanced engineering skills, such as those required to manufacture aircraft, also is a source of great national pride.

In India, for example, the Karnataka state government has announced plans to establish an aerospace center of excellence focused on providing high-end training for nearly 1,600 engineers annually. In Beijing, the government-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is establishing a Sino-French Industry Joint Innovation Center with the aim of creating a centerpiece for the two countries’ “Made in China 2025” and “Industrie du Futur” initiatives.

“The complexity of aviation systems is growing exponentially, and traditional document-based systems engineering and model-based continuous development will be a key driver in the transformation of the development model used in China’s aviation industry,” Zhang Xinguo, deputy general manager of AVIC, said when the center was announced.

Unwilling to let emerging economies grab all the advantages, however, Germany’s Hamburg-based Center for Applied Aviation Research, known as ZAL, is helping to support more than 32 industrial, scientific and academic partners who are exploring innovative solutions to aviation and aerospace technology challenges.

ZAL’s long-range mission is to accelerate the demand for more rapid product development, including the ability to upgrade existing products quickly and seamlessly.

“Imagine this technology center as a sandbox where all of the partners can play together,” said Roland Gerhards, ZAL’s managing director and CEO. “We’re all about collaboration, and the center is a key partner, really unique in what they do, enabling others to accelerate innovation by providing the front-end software development, connecting the different digital tools and digitally linking design and manufacturing.”


In Wichita, the innovation center comprises approximately 120,000 square feet (approximately 11,000 square meters) of labs and workspace where startups and entrepreneurs can experiment, often with advice and expertise from NIAR and industry. The center also serves as an applied learning environment for WSU engineering students, who work alongside NIAR and industry partners.

In addition to collaboration rooms for as many as eight people, the center offers a complete suite of solutions to accelerate innovation from initial concept through certification, from a newly designed part or subassembly up to an entire air vehicle. These solutions include virtual and augmented reality technologies for viewing a design in immersive 3D, multi-robotics for flexible and scalable manufacturing, reverse-engineering technologies and many more.

Nathan Shipley, assistant director of CADCAM at Wichita State University, 3D scans a complex object for reverse-engineering in the university’s new Aerospace & Defense innovation center. (Image © Dassault Systèmes)

Most teams flocking to the center, however, are attracted by its digital, cloud-based platform, which links all phases of work to a common, consistent data pool and to one another. Among other benefits, this platform enables team members to collaborate seamlessly in different parts of the world, as Airbus demonstrated.

The platform also allows researchers to see the art of the possible — and not just for aviation suppliers, BCG’s Milon noted. In fact, BCG has created seven of its own “Innovation Centers for Operation” around the world. Those centers, designed to demonstrate how companies can leverage Industry 4.0 technologies, also are built around a holistic digital platform.

The platform at the innovation center in Wichita “transcends the aerospace industry and can be just as effective for any other manufacturer,” Milon said. “It’s a whole different ball game. Inspiring. I haven’t seen this linked together the way it is at these centers anywhere else.”


Aerospace pessimists see an industry dominated by increasingly risk-averse corporations focused on incremental improvements that fail to keep pace with disruptive advances in other industries. These pessimists anticipate a failure to sustain the socio-economic benefits that have helped fuel the global aerospace industry’s growth for nearly a century.

Optimists, on the other hand, see a responsive industry that can support growing global demand for air travel, environmental improvements that curb costs and emissions, and technology that opens the airspace to new uses of airborne systems. It is a future in which innovation centers play a central role in an industrial renewal that propels aerospace to new heights.

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