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Trends Shaping Metal Forging for Aerospace

June 24, 2020
Forgers are critical suppliers to an essential manufacturing sector, with impressive growth prospects—and numerous factors complicating that growth.

According to a report published in July 2019, the global aerospace forging market carried a value of $4.21 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow at a rate of 7.5% during the 2019 to 2027 period. By 2027, the market is predicted to be worth nearly $8 billion.

Despite various recent setbacks to the global aerospace manufacturing industry, there are some impressive innovations and trends in progress in metal forging that are positive indicators of what professionals in both forging and aerospace sectors can expect in the near future.

Recent Developments

The global threat of COVID-19 has challenged manufacturers and OEM suppliers throughout the aerospace industry. Throughout many parts of the manufacturing world, factories stopped operations altogether due to the sudden halt in business, and this is particularly the case for aircraft OEMs and their Tier suppliers.

Air travel in the United States had slowed down by about 58% during April, and worldwide air travel has dropped by over 40%, as reported by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). FlightRadar24 communications director Ian Petchenik called this crisis "an unprecedented decline in global air traffic” that has affected the entire airline supply chain. The impact on the metal forging industry from COVID-19 is severe.

COVID-19 could reduce airlines' capacity by 30% for domestic travel, and international travel by up to 75%. This lower capacity will mean corresponding reductions in demand for aircraft maintenance and replacement, meaning significant disruptions throughout the aerospace manufacturing supply lines.

For the aerospace forging market, long lead times on large orders provide some buffer to these kinds of quick-paced disturbances, but if disruptions continue into the 2020 summer and fall, forge shops will see considerable shrinkage in order volume as airplane manufacturers cut production.

There is some glimmer of hope within the U.S. market, at least. According to Boeing, aviation manufacturing companies may see a quick ramp-up to full production if it gains access to at least $60 billion in the form of grants, loans, and guarantees. The possibility of seeing this much aid directed into the aviation industry is not a certainty, given the recent political climate in Washington. Regardless of financial assistance, the forging suppliers will see a resurgence in business once the tension of the health crisis begins to pass. Professionals surely will be watching the development of the pandemic closely.

Current Trends

A global analytical report by The Insight Partners states that the aerospace forging market will expand considerably in the coming years, up to a $7.92 billion capitalization by 2027. The Asia-Pacific region remains the second-largest market for aerospace forging, and the European market takes the third-place slot. Insight Partners predicts that due to rising time constraints and increasing disposable income, the aircraft and flight travel market in North America will grow its dominance relative to other sectors of the world.

However, what the potential impact of COVID-19 will be on these predictions remains to be seen.

Around the world, several governments have invested heavily in growing their civil aircraft industries and procuring new aircraft. Couple this fact with the steady push for advanced components and technologically sophisticated systems, and it looks as if the market still has room to grow in the coming decade.

A report titled Global Forging Market 2020-2024 predicts expansion in aerospace forging due to two critical factors:

  • Forging will continue to sustain its advantages over other fabrication methods for supplying aerospace structures and components.
  • Developments in robotics are enhancing forging efficiency and productivity, leading to faster turnarounds and higher-performing production lines.

Industry 4.0 for SME manufacturing

If you're not active in manufacturing engineering you may not be aware of the Industry 4.0 concept: It is the application of "Smart" systems to collect and coordinate archival and live data to enhance production capabilities in real time. This can include robotics in production lines, AI quality control systems, automated inventory and purchasing systems, and system-controlled safety/fault response systems. Industry 4.0 assists manufacturing plants to become more efficient and productive while producing less waste.

It is a common misconception that these programs are expensive, hard to learn, and hard to implement. Firms need only to do proper research on the affordable and open-source systems that can help them slowly automate their line as small forging shops do not need to fully automate their lines with robotics on day one.

Small to medium-sized manufacturers make up 90% of businesses in the forging market; aerospace forging trends are predicting a significant growth, and if these manufacturers want to maintain a competitive edge, they need to adopt the smart systems of the future.

Airbus in U.S. Manufacturing

In January 2020, Airbus announced an expansion of its U.S. manufacturing base at Mobile, AL, by an increase in its A320 family production rate to seven aircraft per month in their factory in Mobile, AL. After massive growth in 2019, Airbus added 600 jobs at that plant and may add more now as its ramps up production. This expansion represents a significant investment in industrial capacity for United States manufacturing and will have positive benefits down the entire supply chain.

All this was exciting news for all parts suppliers and manufacturing shops that work with Airbus. The A320 is a successful and versatile passenger aircraft series, with a capacity to seat up to 240 passengers and is in service for airlines worldwide. In October 2019, the A320 became the highest-selling airplane family in the world, with over 8,800 jets in service.

Unfortunately, Airbus more recently announced that it will be cutting production of airframes, including the A320, by a third in light of a collapse in aircraft demand related to the pandemic. Perhaps this means that Airbus expects demand will remain in decline far into the future.

However, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury has said, “It is not unlikely things will get better in 2021, but we don’t know exactly when.” What is known is that this will have at least short-term effects on the entire supply chain, and is sure to hit the aerospace forging market in the months ahead.

Made in China 2025

It has become a trope among Americans to say that "everything is made in China," but U.S. manufacturing professionals know that it is not entirely true. One thing that should catch the attention of strategic planners and business owners in the U.S. is the Made in China 2025 plan.

In 2015, the People’s Republic of China unveiled a strategic plan called “Made in China 2025,” focused on expanding domestic Chinese production capacities in high-tech fields such as pharmaceuticals, automotive, aerospace, semiconductors, IT, and robotics. Additionally, the outlined agenda proposes to increase the domestic content of core materials to 40% by 2020—this year!—and 70% by 2025.

The result will mean that China will not be dependent upon foreign trade for core manufacturing materials, which in turn, will reduce the market for U.S. manufacturers. This realization has already resulted in a shock to global trade. Not every forge shop sells to Chinese aerospace manufacturers, these effects nevertheless could have severe consequences on the price of raw materials and the demand for U.S.-built airplanes.

We are already halfway through the Made in China 2025 plan, and for now, China very much remains a part of the global supply chain, alongside the United States. Aerospace manufacturing and all facets of that supply chain, including parts forging, is a global industry, and it remains vital for manufacturers to keep in step with the progress of the Made in China 2025 plan.

Calendar Adjustments

The COVID-19 outbreak forced organizers of the 2020 Airport Show to reschedule the event from June to October, still to take place at the Dubai World Trade Center. Aviation industry professionals are hoping that the industry will be ready to rebound by the fall and that this meeting will be a welcome reintroduction to normalcy for the market.

Howmet/Arconic Split

As of April 2020, Howmet Aerospace Inc. has split from Arconic Inc. Now, Howmet Aerospace is an independent forger of aluminum wheels and investment caster for engine components, structures, and fastening systems for automotive and aerospace markets. Over 70% of Howmet’s revenue is derived from the aerospace market, and thus it's a new big player in aerospace forging.

This breakup came after shareholders rejected a takeover proposal by Apollo Global Management, meaning Arconic directors chose to split the business as a cost-cutting initiative.

Whether you work in the aerospace industry or are purely an aviation enthusiast, one thing remains certain: the metal forging market in the aerospace industry is continually changing. As COVID-19 continues shaping the landscape for virtually every industry worldwide, you may expect even more changes for aerospace and aerospace forging.