Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing

Significant Points

* Production and professional jobs account for over half of all jobs in the industry; professional workers need a college degree, while most production workers need some form of post secondary vocational training.
* Employment growth will be limited by productivity improvements and the continued production of parts in foreign countries.
* Partly as a result of the high skill level of workers, average earnings are higher than in most other industries.
* Job prospects should be favorable for workers in professional occupations due to a large number of expected retirements.

Nature of the Industry
Goods and services.

For most of history, the idea of moving people or objects through the air or into space was inconceivable. Today, however, airplanes are the fastest way to move people and goods around the world, and space travel has gone from being a dream to reality. From the TV traffic helicopter to the B-2 bomber to the voyager space probe, everything that moves through the air or space is produced by the aerospace industry.

Because of the high speeds that most aerospace products move at, they must be strong, but since they also must defy gravity, they also need to be light. As a result, workers in this industry use many specialized materials in production. Titanium and aluminum alloys are common, as are advanced composite materials. Because of the extreme conditions aerospace equipment operates in, parts must be designed and manufactured to precise specification; the smallest error could lead to failure of the finished product. As a result, significant testing occurs at each stage of the production process.

Industry organization.

Firms producing transport aircraft make up the largest segment of the civil (nonmilitary) aircraft portion of the industry. Civil transport aircraft are produced for air transportation businesses such as airlines and cargo transportation companies. These aircraft range from small turboprops to wide-body jets and are used to move people and goods all over the world. Another segment of civil aircraft is general aviation aircraft. Aircraft in this segment range from small two-seaters designed for leisure use to corporate jets used for business transport. Civil helicopters, which make up one of the smallest segments of civil aircraft, are commonly used by police and large city traffic departments, emergency medical services, and businesses such as oil and mining companies that need to transport people to remote work sites.

Aircraft engine manufacturers produce the engines used in civil and military aircraft. Because of the specialized work involved, aircraft engines are usually manufactured by separate companies, although they are designed and built according to the aircraft design and performance specifications of the aircraft manufacturers. Aircraft manufacturers may use engines designed by different companies on the same type of aircraft.

Military aircraft and helicopters are purchased by governments to meet national defense needs, such as delivering weapons to military targets and transporting troops and equipment around the globe. Some of these aircraft are specifically designed to deliver or guide a powerful array of ordnance to military targets with tremendous maneuverability and low detectability. Other aircraft, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, are produced to gather defense intelligence such as radio signals or to monitor movement on the ground.

Firms producing guided missiles and missile propulsion units sell primarily to military and government organizations. Although missiles are viewed predominantly as offensive weapons, improved guidance systems have led to their use as defensive systems. This part of the industry also produces space vehicles and the rockets for launching them into space. Consumers of spacecraft include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), telecommunications companies, television networks, and news organizations. Firms producing space satellites are discussed with the computer and electronic product manufacturing industry in this publication because satellites are primarily electronic products.

The Federal Government traditionally has been the aerospace industry’s biggest customer. The vast majority of Government contracts to purchase aerospace equipment are awarded by DOD. NASA also is a major purchaser of the industry’s products and services, mainly for space vehicles and launch services.

The aerospace industry is dominated by a few large firms that contract to produce aircraft with Government and private businesses, usually airline and cargo transportation companies. These large firms, in turn, subcontract with smaller firms to produce specific systems and parts for their vehicles. Government purchases are largely related to defense. Typically, DOD announces its need for military aircraft or missile systems, specifying a multitude of requirements. Large firms specializing in defense products subsequently submit bids, detailing proposed technical solutions and designs, along with cost estimates, hoping to win the contract. Firms also may research and develop materials, electronics, and components relating to their bid, often at their own expense, to improve their chances of winning the contract. Following a negotiation phase, a manufacturer is selected and a prototype is developed and built, then tested and evaluated. If approved by DOD, the craft or system enters production. This process usually takes many years.

Recent developments.

The way in which commercial and military aircraft are designed, developed, and produced continues to undergo significant change in response to the need to cut costs and deliver products faster. Firms producing commercial aircraft have reduced development time drastically through computer-aided design and drafting (CADD), which allows firms to design and test an entire aircraft, including the individual parts, by computer; the specifications of these parts can be sent electronically to subcontractors around the world who use them to produce the parts. Increasingly, firms bring together teams composed of customers, engineers, and production workers to pool ideas and make decisions concerning the aircraft at every phase of product development. Additionally, the military has changed its design philosophy, using commercially available, off-the-shelf technology when appropriate, rather than developing new customized components.

Commercial airlines and private businesses typically identify their needs for a particular model of new aircraft based on a number of factors, including the routes they fly. After specifying requirements such as range, size, cargo capacity, type of engine, and seating arrangements, the airlines invite manufacturers of civil aircraft and aircraft engines to submit bids. Selection ultimately is based on a manufacturer’s ability to deliver reliable aircraft that best fit the purchaser’s stated market needs at the lowest cost and at favorable financing terms.

Source: bls.gov, benham.com, rhinoassembly.com, impactlab.com, ukinvest.gov.uk, evergreen-engg.com

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