The global pandemic has dramatically impacted nearly all industries and markets around the world. For a year that started with immense optimism, 2020 growth has been all but stunted for many sectors, perhaps most visible in aviation and aerospace. Charging into the new decade, innovators touted roadmaps for autonomous, supersonic, and space-faring aircrafts with commitments to improving safety and efficiency for existing models. 2020 was expected to propel the aerospace and defense (A&D) sector “back to its growth trajectory with the commercial aerospace sector recovering from its decline in 2019” according to Deloitte.
According to data from the Transportation Security Administration, daily travel is hovering at less than 10% of what it was last year. Analysts continue to revise estimates of airline losses, now expected in the hundreds of billions. These figures do not account for the billions lost throughout the supply chain, ancillary services, and hospitality sectors. There’s no denying the tremendous hardship these companies – and their employees – currently face, but there are things we can learn from aerospace companies continuing to do important work for the future of air and space innovation.
No one could have predicted the turn of events or the impact of COVID-19, or “these uncertain times” as we’ve come to know them. Amidst all the uncertainty, though, a few things are nearly certain: 1) Access to investment capital will diminish, 2) Commercial and consumer aerospace demand will retract and 3) Companies will need to reevaluate budgets and operating models in order to survive. At the same time, almost certainly there will be new advancements and new markets to unlock, begging the question: how can aerospace companies defend their ability to innovate and prepare for the upswing?
As commercial airlines and aircraft manufacturers operate at significantly reduced capacity, a wave of next generation aerospace technology continues to push the envelope. Investments in A&D may not grow at the rate initially expected, but advancements in hybrid-electrification, urban air mobility, and space travel are continuing forward. A who’s who of visionary aerospace start ups continue to build lighter, safer, and more sophisticated components and aircraft. The challenge now is that the previously available capital is drying up as investors wait out the economic tremors. “The companies that are highly capital intensive are going to struggle,” says Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Capital venture capital firm. “The companies that are profitable, or have found novel, low-cost ways to do things in new ways — or if they’re focused on minimizing costs and focusing on the business model — those companies are going to fare better” (The Verge).
While private funding has waned in recent months, the US government has responded by helping get cash to private space companies (CNBC) to the tune of $3 billion. For companies fortunate to have secured government contracts, the future of funding may be more certain. For example, contracts with the Department of Defense or NASA are likely to continue, with many workers deemed essential to continue through shelter-in-place orders. For reasons of national security, “The Pentagon wants its suppliers to stay in business “without losing their technology,” says Ellen Lord, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (AirforceMag).
Rescale sees a wave of aerospace innovation coming from small to mid-sized players, many of which are relatively new entrants. What these organizations lack in size and infrastructure, they make up for with closely guarded intellectual property that is optimized with powerful simulation tools. Engineers focused on propulsion, aerodynamics, structures, light-weighting, and avionics can validate aircraft designs using computer aided engineering and high performance computing thus avoiding the need for constant physical testing can incur significant costs like in wind tunnel testing.
Engineers working on breakthroughs in aviation, such as next-gen supersonic travel, leverage the benefits of on-demand, cloud-based HPC to simulate their aircraft designs. The team at Boom Supersonic selected Rescale to “be simulation-driven throughout the product design phase” shares CTO and co-founder, Joshua Krall. Keen on increasing simulation throughput to reduce time to market, the Boom team takes advantage of the on-demand hardware and software available on the Resale platform to quickly scale up and down during various stages of the design cycle.
Similarly, the team at Aerion Supersonic have applied their expertise in natural laminar flow design to various supersonic aircraft designs using Rescale. Aerion was able to onboard onto Rescale quickly and meet critical product deadlines with access to cloud resources versus fixed resources. Dev Rajnarayan, Chief Software Architect at Aerion highlights the importance of compliance, understandable for a company working on research & development that will go into U.S. government contracts. In Feb 2020 Aerion announced work was underway for a “family of rapidly developed high altitude supercruise aircraft for the US Defense market” (PR Newswire).
In response to the recent pandemic related business interruption, customers like McCormick Stevenson demonstrated their flexibility and preparedness. Principal Engineer and technical lead, Mike Krawcyzk, explained “We were fully prepared for this prior to the virus hitting… Our management and IT group have wanted us to be as capable outside, be it at home or with a client site, as we are in the office… Workloads can be launched and monitored from anywhere from a desktop or mobile phone.“ McCormick Stevenson is a government sub-contractor focused on electronics, guidance systems, and high-G environments. They use a variety of simulation tools to test the effects of shock, vibration, and acceleration to minimize the risk for their customers. Krawcyzk elaborated on the challenges associated with designing parts to military specifications which demand simulations for reducing “SWAP or size, weight, and power.” The various types of CFD and FEA workloads stipulate the optimal type of compute hardware: “With Rescale we always have the latest processors available without a heavy investment”. This key benefit of on-demand cloud resources is helping businesses to reduce costly capital expenditures and quickly boost capacity during a time when new business is less certain.
The Defense industry has long benefited from advanced R&D methodologies. We recently had a chance to speak with Rob Weiss, former GM of Lockheed Martin and advisor to several cutting edge aerospace start ups. He shared some insights on the strategic “thrusts” behind many engineering breakthroughs from his time at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program Skunk Works: “Innovative [aerospace] teams today are looking for ways to speed up the development process. The goal is to design, develop, and test as rapidly as possible with micro-simulations at each step. Whether it’s the threat of competition or foreign powers, there is a continual drive to get products out fast. That’s where HPC comes in.“ Weiss is an advocate for simulation technologies and advises multiple bleeding-edge aerospace companies who are engaged with Rescale today.
Periods of market volatility like we are seeing today often show us how incumbent aerospace players can outlast smaller players who will be forced to shutter. As seen in the 2007-2008 recession that similarly impacted the sector, many companies were forced to cut their capital expenditures (Frost & Sullivan). While demand may be down across the board, best practices for model-based systems engineering, multidisciplinary design optimization (MDO), and digital twin/engineering are increasingly important, especially if a business hopes to secure government contracts. While these practices and standards are still being developed, it demonstrates an increased attention to simulation to create more precise, safer, and more efficient aircrafts and components. This is also relevant for major retrofitting and maintenance programs like as seen with the US B-52 fleet. Today many organizations on the Rescale ScaleX platform are leveraging specific tools of systems-engineering and MDO like Siemens’ HEEDS to address the complexity of building the systems and subsystems of aircraft. Players big and small will need to push their digital capabilities to win these contracts and gain access to new and more flexible and robust compute resources to achieve this.
Regardless of company size, engineers require significant computational resources for high fidelity simulations of flight dynamics – down to the durability of a bolt. A prerequisite for these simulations is often sizable IT overhead to manage the computational, connectivity, storage, and security aspects of high performance computing. HPC hardware is already known to put a strain on IT organizations in the form of steep capital expenditures and quickly obsolescing on-premise hardware, and because of this, organizations increasingly seek out on-demand, cloud-enabled alternatives. Now with the volatility of customer contracts and funding, inaccessibility of on-premise infrastructure due to remote work policies, and general headcount scrutiny, aerospace leadership “A&D companies may need to outsource some corporate functions (e.g., moving IT to the cloud)… Such changes can lower operating costs as well as eliminate maintenance capital expenditures” (PWC). PWC points out that “Most companies already have business continuity plans, but those may not fully address the fast-moving and unknown variables of an outbreak such as COVID-19.”
While we can’t predict what lay ahead for cumulative aerospace customer demand, amidst these “uncertain” times businesses will feel more pressure to redefine how they do business. There is room for a rich ecosystem of aerospace goods and services, but undoubtedly the demand for commercial and consumer products is significantly impacted. This may cause some organizations to shrink or slow R&D efforts. However pausing innovation due to operational turbulence or constrained capacity could mean a significant loss in market share in massive markets. Because of this, companies who are well situated to survive through this uncertainty will also be poised to thrive and capitalize when demand grows again. Those working in the industry have lingering woes: “This is going to be the new normal, so we have to be prepared” (NYT), so it’s all but certain that the industry landscape will consolidate with the most flexible and resilient players emerging on top.
Rescale applauds the work of aerospace innovators everywhere. Major milestones for our customers and other industry leaders are planned to make history and take humankind to new heights. We are proud to support their efforts through the use of HPC simulation, speeding up development and making missions safer. If your business could benefit from on-demand access to the latest cloud infrastructure for aerospace simulations, we want to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.