With some eVTOL manufacturers targeting certification and the beginnings of scaled manufacturing in just a few years, NASA and other industry participants are under pressure to rapidly develop tools to support the growth of relevant supply chains — and ensure critical components and sub-systems can be produced within the United States.
NASA has received hundreds of responses to a request for information (RFI) seeking to identify manufacturing capabilities relevant to the emerging sector, and is currently building a database of advanced air mobility (AAM) suppliers that will serve as the foundation for an electronic exchange platform to help connect the industry and understand ecosystem strength. The initial database will be ready within the next two months, according to Parimal Kopardekar, director of NASA Aeronautics Research Institute.
“Then, we want to build a modeling and simulation environment on top of it that analyzes the gaps in the system, particularly as we start to move from the first S-curve — which is pre-production, pre-certification — to post-certification and scalability, and to understand where the gaps are,” said Kopardekar during a recent industry discussion on supply chains. “If we only have one or two ball bearing manufacturers, or we only have one battery manufacturer, or we depend on [suppliers] outside the United States for certain things, that might cause us significant risk.”
The data input sources are a little messy, said Dana Jensen, senior industrial policy analyst with the U.S. Air Force’s flying car-focused Agility Prime project, including respondents to NASA’s RFI as well as vendors who sign up for various Agility Prime events. But the interest in understanding the sector’s supply chain structure — and perhaps participating in it — is clear.
“When Agility Prime first kicked off back in April, I did a quick scan of who was involved, broke the vendors into various buckets based on where they were in the supply chain for eVTOL. At the time, our understanding of the ecosystem was in its infancy; we had probably 60 firms,” Jensen said. “I just threw those 60 firms up on a PowerPoint slide and dropped it onto LinkedIn, and it was [one of the highest-viewed] aerospace posts of 2020 according to SMG Consulting. That was indicative of the appetite.”
Some industry players aren’t waiting for NASA or Agility Prime to act. Nexa Capital Partners released a white paper, co-authored by Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, outlining an industry consortium approach they intend to lead. The white paper can be accessed here.
Joined by supply chain consultancy Apicem Analytics and I5 Services, which powers the digital marketplace used by the National Association of Manufacturers, Nexa and VFS are forming an industry consortium and seeking financial commitments to begin the development of a digital supply chain tool tailored to the needs of the eVTOL industry. Nexa has committed to funding part of the project, managing partner Michael Dyment told eVTOL.com, and expects funding to come from NASA and the Pentagon as well as other members of private industry.
“This is the start, I hope, of a concerted joint effort for the entire industry to wake up and realize what’s at stake here,” said Dyment. “This is a trillion-dollar market and we don’t want to find it migrating to Europe and China before anything is done. We’re only able to prevent that if we can organize supply chains correctly.”
Dyment sees four supply chains necessary for the potential of urban air mobility (UAM) and eVTOLs to be realized: certified vehicle operators, UAM ground infrastructure, UAM traffic management infrastructure, and eVTOL vehicle manufacturers. His firm has identified more than 1,700 companies likely to participate in these four supply chains and, ideally, projects a need for more than 5,000 to be involved.
“I think as an industry it would behoove us to leverage what’s already in place,” said Michael McNair, vice president for aerospace at SAE Industry Technologies Consortia (ITC), during the recent NASA discussion on supply chains. “We have a tremendous supply chain capability in aviation already and there is plenty to leverage with the larger sized UAVs. The existing aviation supply chain isn’t going to work so well for the [smaller] Part 107 aircraft, but once you get to these medium and large-sized aircraft, now you’re talking a lot of the same kinds of components that need to be on board . . . a lot of the same lower-tier suppliers.”
Automotive manufacturers have also increasingly begun to look toward aerospace for opportunities, noted Jeff Simek, board member for the Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan — a point reinforced by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ recent foray into the sector via partnership with eVTOL startup Archer.
“We’re typecast as an automotive state, but we’ve got quite a bit of aerospace going on. We’ve noticed a significant growth in the last two to three years of companies diversifying into aerospace and getting their AS9100D certification and things of that nature,” Simek said, referring to a widely-adopted quality management system for aerospace manufacturing. “There is going to be capacity opening up in the auto industry relative to electrification that’s happening . . . there’s the capacity, manufacturing footprint available in that regard in the auto industry.”
Building supply chain management tools to facilitate ecosystem development and manufacturing capabilities will likely spur greater investment in the eVTOL sector, the white paper co-authored by Dyment and Hirschberg predicts — and 2021 will be “the most significant year ever in capital formation for AAM companies and eVTOL developers.”