Aerospace Design Part I: Innovating On a 300,000+ Piece Puzzle

“Design is seeing the invisible problem, not just the obvious problem.” - Tony Fadell, 2015 TED Talk

Design is all around us; it is the genesis of all that is ultimately built. Detailed designs are the building blocks that make up the final product. And yet, as we look in awe at shiny, beautiful end products, we often overlook the painstaking hours it took to reach that point. Within aerospace, it’s often the futuristic renderings that get all the attention as they project inspiring images of what is yet to come. But to reach the point where those renderings can fly, design teams spend years - sometimes a decade - scoping and testing every facet of a new aircraft.

What is aerospace design?

Aerospace design touches upon every part of an aircraft, from planning the layout with consumers and maintenance crews in mind to choosing the best materials and testing everything to ensure the plane is functional, efficient and safe. To provide a sense of scale, the Airbus A320 is a narrow-body aircraft that contains over 340,000 unique parts. Many of those parts had to be meticulously designed and optimized to serve a particular need. As the industry and enabling technologies mature, aircraft too must evolve, as do the regulatory and certification parameters. The iterative force of progress requires each of those thousands of parts to be reevaluated and innovated upon.

What is the process?

Before any parts are designed (or redesigned) to support a new product, the process must start with market research—talking with airlines to understand what they need and what new opportunities exist that would demand design changes. Once there’s consensus around the ultimate objectives, aerospace designers begin to get tactical. The Master Geometry group then sets the Outer-Mold-Lines (OML), which is essentially the outside of the plane, commonly referred to as the skin. Then, design engineers use the OML to design the detailed parts that make up the aircraft from the inside out. Designing an aircraft is like putting together a puzzle; there are thousands of uniquely shaped pieces that have a designated spot, and if they don’t fit or aren’t placed correctly, the puzzle won’t align and cannot be deemed complete.

Aerospace design is a uniquely collaborative process that involves many iterations. Before each part is released, its role is tested in design for fit, form and function using software like CATIA, and in stress for structural integrity using Airbus proprietary tools and processes. If the part does not initially pass structural requirements, design engineers pull on some of their many levers and iterate with stress engineers until a solution that satisfies both design and structural requirements is found. This cyclical process may not happen at all, or it may happen several times.

In many ways, building an aircraft is an exact science, adhering to stringent regulations to ensure the quality and safety of each plane. Yet creative thinking is the source of innovation when it comes to working within those constraints. Without innovative design, the aerospace industry wouldn’t be as successful as it is today - flying nearly 3,000,000 people every day in and out of U.S. airports alone (FAA). Finding the balance between long-standing protocols and creativity is an exciting arena to play in. For many design engineers, the draw is not only the challenge of working in an innovative industry such as aerospace but the desire to find a solution to the “invisible problems” or opportunities that can be generated by thinking creatively and approaching aerospace design with a beginner’s eye.

What are the constraints?

As designers work through each part, they are guided by physical constraints (not to mention regulatory and certification standards, which we’ll delve into in another post). Spatial limitations based on the aircraft's skin, like size, shape and placement of parts such as the stringers, frames, spars and ribs, are often the most significant factor to consider. Spatial constraints are also defined by the various systems like fuel, electrical, hydraulic and air. Designers not only work with these systems, but they plan for strategically placed access points to ensure the systems are easily accessible by maintenance crews.

Risk and expense are two big forces involved when making significant changes in aerospace. They contribute to why many of the tools and materials have remained the same over the decades. But innovations do break through and carry weight. For example, in materials, the use of carbon fiber was a significant innovation. Carbon fiber now commonly replaces aluminum in the fuselage and wings due to its strength, lightweight and anti-corrosion characteristics. More recently, advancements in aerospace design are happening within the digital space, where we use tools like CATIA to design parts and Airbus’ bespoke stress analysis platform, which serves as a stress management tool.

Where can we continue to innovate?

It’s an exciting time to work in aerospace design, with innovation being at the forefront both in terms of ways of working (i.e., automation) and final product output. As a team, we are working with subject matter experts who have institutional knowledge from designing and building aircraft for over 40 years. At the same time, there is energy around technological advancements to improve inefficiencies and expedite time-consuming processes. The talent we’re attracting today is a combination of meticulous, driven and independent workers who are passionate about aerospace. Yet, they are collaborative and well-versed in programming too. We are all inspired by the future growth our industry faces and are ready to approach aerospace design more efficiently. Nothing’s more exhilarating than watching components you’ve designed in flight.

If you’re interested in joining our team and building the future of flight, apply here.

- Timothy Thomas & Stuart Peck