What’s new in aircraft design?

This week I attended the Royal Aeronautical Society 6th Aircraft Structural Design conference (https://www.aerosociety.com/events-calendar/6th-aircraft-structural-design-conference/) hosted at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol. The conference aimed to address the challenges faced by designers of next generation aircraft, including environmental constraints, advanced manufacturing and materials as well as new design approaches.

Smart and efficient mobility with reduced environmental impact were identified as key challenges for today’s aerospace industry. There was quite a strong focus on sustainability, with several papers reporting research to increase aircraft efficiency by using longer, slender wings or introducing morphing elements.  Many of these concepts take their inspiration from nature by using shape adapting wings, but these complex designs bring new challenges for their structural design.

There was also a lot of interest in the new field of urban air transportation (or personal air vehicles) to provide rapid transportation in urban communities. There are currently many concept vehicles for this technology (for example the Airbus Pop.Up or Uber Elevate), often using electric or hybrid-electric propulsion. For me, even with greener propulsion, this doesn’t seem to be a sustainable future transport solution.  However, one paper proposed a more sustainable role for these electric air vehicles, to provide transportation in remote regions where roads and rail networks are not available.

I was particularly interested in the additive manufacturing research presented at the conference. There continues to be a lot of interest in using additive manufacturing to reduce the weight of aircraft structures through optimization and to reduce the waste material produced during manufacturing. The research presented at the conference highlighted that there is still a huge amount of work to be done to qualify additive manufacturing as a production process for aircraft structures, but both industry and academia are working hard to make this a reality.

I presented a paper about a knowledge-based engineering tool for Wire+Arc Additive Manufacture (WAAM). WAAM is a new additive manufacturing technology that uses welding technology controlled by a robot to produce medium to large scale metal parts (to find out more take a look at www.waammat.com ). Our design tool helps a manufacturer to assess the suitability of a component for WAAM and to compare the cost of WAAM production with conventional manufacture using CNC machining. The tool also automates many of the routine steps in designing for WAAM and has already been used with industry partners to assess the design of aircraft components using WAAM.

Finally, one disappointment for me was the poor gender diversity at the conference.  The conference had about 80 delegates, with only four of us being women.  Through most of my career I have accepted this gender imbalance as the norm, but as the decades pass and we don’t make any progress, I wonder what we can do to improve gender diversity in engineering research in the future?





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