The trend has been to electrify more functions on airplanes, but increasing electrification also means increased complexity. The two qualities can be balanced, however - we are seeing increased reliability.
Some have asked whether the aerospace industry is trading reliability for time to market. When focusing on the reliability element of this question, we see higher aircraft reliability with more electrification. There has been a long-standing trend to electrify more functions on the airplane (think converting mechanical and pneumatic systems to electrical) and reliability is a primary driver for this electrification. As electrification takes hold, we are seeing increased levels of reliability in today’s aircraft.
However, increasing electrification also means increased complexity.
How do aerospace OEMs ensure the aircraft’s electric system is reliably designed and integrated? Equally important is the impact of electrification on regulatory compliance. Today, key program compliance milestones carry a high degree of risk and aerospace OEMs are under immense pressure to deliver aircraft to their customers on time. For example, some of the early analysis done for tragic Boeing 737 Max crashes point to that.
Not achieving timely regulatory compliance translates into a serious setback for the entire program. Often this delays entry into service, pushes out initial production deliveries, and severely impacts profitability.
Challenges brought by electrification
Aerospace OEMs are increasingly turning to electrical systems for differentiation. But electrification has its own set of challenges. It’s important to realize there are two distinct facets of electrification.
The first is electrification as a means of onboard power generation. We’ve seen substantial growth in electric/electrical content over the past 20 years and, as seen in figure 1, platform electrical power demand has grown by 10x power demand over the last 50 years. And second, electrification also means innovating and implementing new electrical solution functionality on board modern aircraft. This type of functionality includes fly-by-wire systems, in-flight entertainment, passenger USB ports, and interior creature comforts to name a few.
On a typical commercial aircraft today, there are thousands of electronic systems, miles of electrical wiring, a multitude of configurations to design and build, and of course, numerous safety and compliance considerations to meet.
Now, when it comes to designing and integrating multiple electrical systems into an aircraft, as well as demonstrating compliance, the old methods quickly outdate themselves as they don’t scale well with increased complexity.
The fact is aerospace OEMs are still using semi-manual methods and physical hand-offs to exchange data from one engineering group to the next.
This way of doing business is just not as efficient as it could be. These manual analysis methods were first established long before modern electrification was introduced, when the electrical system was relatively simple and its analysis more manageable. When a compliance issue is found today using these old methods, it’s often late in the design process, forcing expensive iterations and costly setbacks in both profitability and time to market. You now have a better idea of what the aerospace OEMs are up against.
So why are the aerospace OEMs stuck in the “old way” of doing things? The old methods are cumbersome and cost-prohibitive to scale to today’s modern complex aircraft. Surely, there has to be a better solution.
The good news is we have made progress in this area – there are legitimate solutions out there – and OEMs are beginning to take note.
Perhaps one of the biggest developments is embracing the electrical digital twin (figure 2), something Siemens has been out in front of for many years now. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical product, which can be used to understand, analyze, and predict outcomes of the physical counterpart – before it actually takes shape. The digital twin provides a core model of the product, the processes used to produce it and its performance throughout its lifecycle, allowing aerospace teams (and future engineers) to create, iterate, replicate, and improve valuable programs. The results are data coherency and stability, integration, and advanced automation. Using an electrical digital twin significantly de-risks and streamlines platform electrical system design and integration and makes meeting compliance milestones are a far easier task.
As more OEMs employ the digital twin, I foresee both improved reliability and improved time to market.
As I have mentioned the importance of compliance and its many associated complexities, I do want to mention a new software compliance tool from Siemens called Capital Load Analyzer. This new tool is designed to help engineers address the impact of electrical complexity on electrical loads. The goal is to help ensure a safe electrical design for all flight phases, even emergency conditions, and show a complete picture of the electrical loads for every unique configuration.
Today’s engineers are tasked with electrical load management that is disconnected, error-prone, and often uses references that are outdated or obsolete. They need such tools that not only offer a digitalized approach to electrical compliance, but also create one integrated report for each configuration.
Advances such as these give me great hope for the future of our industry. Aerospace OEMs are beginning to see the new design and analysis opportunities that await them and soon, the question of reliability vs. time to market will be as out of date as Fortran. And that won’t come soon enough.
– The author, Anthony Nicoli, is director of Aerospace and Defense, Integrated Electrical Systems. He leads the aerospace business for Mentor’s Integrated Electrical Systems (IES) business segment. Prior to this role, Tony led the Mentor Graphics technical sales team serving the Boeing Company. Before joining Mentor, he spent nearly twenty years in the defense industry, developing electro-optic and electro-acoustic systems and businesses, working primarily in the tactical missile countermeasure and underwater imaging domains. Tony holds Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Masters in Business Administration from Northeastern University.