Gerrard Cowan
By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan

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To mass produce eVTOL air taxis, aerospace rethinks manufacturing

The eVTOL sector could one day produce aircraft at an unprecedented scale, closer in scope to the automotive industry than traditional aviation. That will bring unique production challenges and opportunities, according to industry experts, with many seeing strong potential in the disruptive technologies being pursued across manufacturing.  

Lilium Jet eVTOL manufacturing
While Lilium’s production facilities are currently devoted to prototype development, the company is gearing up for eventual high-volume manufacturing of its eVTOL Lilium Jet. Lilium Photo

The planned mass production of air taxis and other eVTOL platforms means that “the existing aviation industry standards will not be efficient any more,” said a spokesperson for Pipistrel, maker of the 801 platform. “The existing way of producing aircraft is simply too slow and too expensive.”

The sector will need to adapt more of the practices of the automotive sector, the spokesperson added, if it is to address this demand.

“A wholly new branch of industry will be born, which will combine the benefits of both branches: the safety and high standards of the aviation industry and the efficiency of large-scale automotive lean production, so that the new aircraft can be both safe and affordable.”

While intelligent production methods will be taken from across the automotive sector, “broadly, we’re not reinventing the wheel here,” said Oliver Walker-Jones, head of communications at Lilium, maker of the Lilium Jet. However, because many of the companies in the evolving sector are designing their production facilities from scratch, “we have the opportunity to build in the latest thinking, tools, and processes.”

Walker-Jones said eVTOL platforms hold manufacturing advantages over traditional helicopters, which “contain many thousands more parts than our aircraft, including many complex elements such as turbine engines and gearboxes, making them harder and more expensive to produce.” While companies in the sector will need to set up supply chains and production capabilities to produce the aircraft at scale, “we don’t see any unique challenges,” he said. The aim is to take “the quality of aerospace manufacturing and combine it with lessons of scale from the automotive industry, given the potential scope of our market.”

Joerg Mueller, head of UAM strategy at Airbus, manufacturer of the Vahana and CityAirbus eVTOL projects, also highlighted the need for significantly higher production numbers. This will demand “more advanced and more automated and more digital manufacturing processes than in the traditional aerospace world,” he said, adding that the developments of adjacent industries could help guide the trajectory; for example, aerospace could adapt automotive sector expertise in manufacturing high-performance components efficiently.

CityAirbus Donauwörth
Airbus is actively pursuing eVTOL development through demonstrators including CityAirbus, shown here at its manufacturing facilities in Donauwörth, Germany. Airbus Photo

Composites will play a key role in this future, providing highly durable materials that are lower in cost and can be produced quickly through techniques like additive manufacturing, key considerations when producing at the envisioned scales. Mueller said the manufacturing process will necessarily be more data-driven, automated, and optimized than in the lower-volume traditional aerospace domain, with advanced composites like thermoplastics playing a larger role.

Volocopter founder Alex Zosel said the complexity of platforms like his company’s system lies more in the electronics than the mechanics, so that “production and maintenance costs are a fraction of those of a helicopter.” He said his company is adapting expertise from the automotive industry through its partnerships with Daimler and Geely.

“Much of the manufacturing expertise in producing highly complex machines already exists in the automotive industry: high-volume production of fiber composite material and a battery powertrain,” he told eVTOL.com. “These manufacturing processes will also help eVTOLs scale up their business.”

Arevo is a specialist in the disruptive manufacturing space, developing manufacturing-as-a-service capabilities for 3D-printed thermoplastic composites that are made on demand. Airbus is an investor in Arevo. While the latter does not work with the European aerospace giant on eVTOL directly, it has worked with another manufacturer on the platforms, said Hemant Bheda, Arevo chairman and co-founder, though he could not provide further details. 

The use of thermoplastics and software-enabled additive manufacturing can greatly speed the manufacturing process, said Bheda, as there is no need for lay-up on a mold, oven curing, and the other steps associated with the more traditional manufacturing process. Additionally, automation and robotics are eliminating the need for hand labor, he said.  

Bheda said his company is working on manufacturing processes that will allow companies to build a unibody or monococque frame for platforms, including eVTOL. He also expects advances in battery technology to dramatically cut weight while driving the same performance, which would have a positive impact on manufacturing. 

“We think all of this technology will merge in the next couple of years to make a more viable eVTOL production solution.” 

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1 Comment

  1. Using techniques borrowed from the automotive industry may not be the most efficient. The aviation industry should explore robotics and 3D printing techniques.

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