At the end of the second world war, cars and aircraft were manufactured in almost the same way; a slow moving production line where skilled workers more or less assembled the vehicles by hand. Since then the automotive industry has become far more automated and has scaled enormously. Robotic production lines produce millions of cars every year. Comparing the two assembly line photos below, taken more than 50 years apart, it can be seem that during this time the aerospace world has barely changed. Even with the planned rates of 50-60 per month for the Airbus A320 family and Boeing 737 family, production rates still fall short of the point where assembly automation becomes really worthwhile.
Automated and Tailored Design
But do the small production volumes and high costs of development continue to make the aerospace industry immune to automation in the computer and internet age?
There is one stage of the aircraft creation process that has already embraced the digital age; with the arrival of the computers, designing aircraft components changed dramatically. From 3D modelling instead of paper drawings, finite element models and computational fluid dynamic models instead of hand calculations, the design world has become simultaneously much more complicated and layered, yet much faster at each step. The individual design areas remain fairly independent outside of the multidisciplinary initial design phase at the moment, but it is now normal for an entire aircraft to be designed exclusively on computer and this lays the foundations for an almost completely automated design process in the future. Aircraft companies will need to become software companies (or will software companies become aircraft companies?) and develop software suites that can go further than initial optimisation and develop an entire aircraft to final design in an automated matter over the course of a few of weeks.
Automated Manufacture On Demand
Currently once individual parts have been designed, an industrialisation process that foresees a production run in the hundreds, if not thousands of parts, is started. Suppliers are found and raw materials are ordered. A shorter and easier design process will lead to more frequent changes, more customisation for airlines and even more aircraft families. Consequently it will no longer be practical, or desired to have serial production of parts. Instead parts will be manufactured as needed, either in multi-purpose workshops, or increasingly with 3D printing farms (metallic parts) and fibre placement machines (composite parts). The production of all the individual parts to manufacture aircraft will be reduced to a few weeks (with the exception of a few specialist long lead time items).
Assembly by Hand
Given the increased level of customisation and variation in design, the assembly process would seem relatively resilient to automation, since there would be few repetitive tasks. Although some use of robots and other automation is to be expected, aircraft will for the most part still be assembled by hand in 50 years time.
How the Future Will Look
The shortened design and manufacturing processes will mean that new aircraft will not be much more expensive to produce that existing designs and this will slowly lead to the death of the aircraft family. Instead airlines will be able to order bespoke aircraft for specific route and roles. New aircraft will be able to be designed and built within a year, and will no longer be massive and risky undertakings. This will allow aircraft manufacturers to sell aircraft at lower prices and to be more creative and risk-taking in their designs. Overall there will be an explosion in the number and type of aircraft being flown.
What Still has to Change
This is not to say there are not many challenges that still have be overcome before aircraft can be designed and produced in such a manner. For example, aircraft currently undergo a certification process that can take years for completely new aircraft. This clearly becomes impractical if tens (even hundreds?) of new designs are being developed every year. Likewise crew training will have to be considered. It might be possible for the flight controls to be adapted to feel the same between aircraft and to create a common (or at least grouped) certification for pilots. However it would not be practical to expect cabin crew to be familiar with so many aircraft types if they each had unique evacuation plans for example.
These problems (among others) do not have answers at the moment, and will most likely take a very long time to overcome. However given the advantages the future design and manufacturing processes will bring to airlines and aircraft manufacturers, a new way way of working will surely be developed in time that solves these issues.