Automation will play an increasingly important role as aerospace crawls back from the COVID driven down-turn. Over the past decade, automation has been a focus of OEMs in the manufacture of new parts. That focus will be expanded in the recovery and extend significantly to the MRO sector. Since automation is usually associated with reducing costs in high volume production environments, this prediction may seem to be contraindicated by reducing new production and MRO activities forecast for the coming years. However, two changing conditions in the down-turn significantly boost the benefits offered by automation, even at lower volume levels.
The first condition is the change in the availability of skilled and qualified talent. The massive lay-offs, furloughs, and early retirement incentives currently unfolding in the industry, particularly in light of the average age of a highly skilled employee in the aerospace industry, will result in an insurmountable deficit in talent as we recover. Many will retire permanently. As other sectors recover more quickly, many will move outside of aerospace. Of those remaining, skills will have softened, and certifications will have expired.
The availability of skilled, certified, and current resources will become a limiting factor in commercial aviation recovery, from pilots to maintenance technicians, casting suppliers to machinists, gate agents to baggage handlers. As the aerospace industry recovers, it will find ways to automate many functions that would otherwise require significant recruiting, training, and re-certification efforts over months or years to achieve the Q4 2019 status quo’s capabilities. Furthermore, the management of, and liability associated with, those human resources in a period of highly variable demand would expose the industry to unmanageable vulnerabilities.
The second condition is the increase in capability and reduction of costs associated with modern automation. Driven initially by progress in the automotive industry, the robotics and automation industry has successfully driven the cost of systems down while simultaneously increasing capability and reducing the cost of repurposing existing systems to perform new or additional tasks. The result of these combined improvements is that systems that are relatively inexpensive to acquire and operate can fulfill many of the demands of less-skilled labor, leaving our precious human workforce available for more complicated tasks.
For example, I witnessed the new generation of cobots already hard at work polishing windows and canopies, handling parts for automated nondestructive testing cells, and in my recent travels, noticed a few disinfecting surfaces in an airport terminal.
Automation is a part of the foundation of our future. We’ve seen its benefits in the cockpit for years, improving safety and reducing pilot workloads. We will see those benefits spread more rapidly to manufacturing and maintenance in the next few years.