Opinion: The Pragmatic Electrification Of Aviation's Aftermarket

DLR electric aviation
Electric aviation is one of the key research topics prioritized by the 13 national aviation research organizations.
Credit: DLR

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the aerospace and defense industry’s investment capacity, it has not stopped the flow of new ideas and technologies, such as electric aircraft. Despite advancements in all-electric aircraft technology, it is no longer revolutionary. But the seeds of an aftermarket revolution are in today’s “more electric” aircraft.

The electrification of aviation is often associated with autonomous aircraft for urban air mobility and cargo. This association is tidy and exciting, but incomplete. All-electric aircraft are but one part of the new ecosystems to manage assets, traffic, payments and more elements that must emerge for autonomous aviation to succeed. 

Electrification in commercial aviation is better seen through two lenses: the “more electric” aircraft entering service today and the long, incremental road to electric propulsion. While excitement around electrification largely has focused on propulsion, how might OEMs and aftermarket providers use the more electric present to prepare for the future? 

We are already seeing the benefits of electrification in terms of increased reliability and data insight. First, reliability.  Electrification reduces moving parts, and fewer moving parts means fewer failures, increasing reliability. Data suggest that electric automobiles will have about half the maintenance costs of their petroleum-powered counterparts. Many of these cost advantages will be conferred by electric power and drive systems. As commercial aviation looks ahead a decade or more to achieve even viable hybrid-electric, short-range 50-seat aircraft, much work is required in the advancement of battery capacity and weight and power management to realize the holy grail of data-rich, all-electric aircraft.

The Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 proved the viability of megawatt-plus electric architectures for cabin, environmental, braking and flight control systems. Passing the megawatt threshold creates a critical mass of more reliable, lower weight, electric subsystems. The reliability and weight improvements tied to these subsystems will lead to a broader rethink of MRO. New and next-generation airliners will further advance electric subsystems, power management and integration. This transition away from pneumatics and hydraulics will help shape future aftermarket business models.

As for data, Accenture’s research shows airlines and aftermarket providers agree that data-driven predictability and process visibility are critical to their mutual success. Each new electrified subsystem supports those objectives by decreasing the acquisition cost and increasing the availability of aircraft-health data through more intelligent systems. More data, derived from electrified systems, allow us to ask new aftermarket questions: 

· How might software and systems better optimize power consumption and accelerate electrification? 

· Can maintenance be scheduled more flexibly based on reliability?

· Can operators change aircraft utilization patterns to optimize maintenance intervals? 

· Can part limits be dynamically tuned in concert with OEMs and regulators? 

· What insight can be provided to improve power management and storage technologies?

The decisions that aftermarket providers make to adapt their strategies to more electric aircraft can increase their resiliency and position them for growth. Aftermarket businesses will exist in a world of more reliable, intelligent systems and more agile, tailored and infrequent maintenance programs. Accenture’s Spring 2020 survey of airlines and aftermarket providers found that nearly half of airlines are willing to share aircraft operational data with aftermarket providers to improve outcomes. More than 90% are willing to share operational and/or flight data. What does this suggest? In a more electric, more reliable, data-rich environment, successful aftermarket providers will be those that can facilitate data exchange and drive decisions from it.

Aftermarket providers’ investments in data, analytics and systems engineering will serve them well in an electrified future. As all-electric systems mature, additional investments will come for infrastructure to sustain batteries and all-electric systems. Yet business models remain unchanged. From dynamic optimization of aircraft utilization to the “spiral insertion” of new capability through the product lifecycle, there are many future-ready ideas to reshape and improve the aftermarket business model. The question remains as to which aftermarket providers can restructure their business models to capitalize upon the insights and reliability that electrification is already bringing today.

Craig Gottlieb is the managing director in Accenture’s aerospace and defense practice, focused on innovation in aftermarket services.