The Future of Aerospace Requires OEMs to Rethink Supply Chain

By Logan Wamsley

Aviation historians, at least ones of the couch-sitting variety, typically do not have a fondness for hydrogen for one reason and one reason only: The Hindenburg. Due to the scarcity of helium in the United States at the time and its banning as an export under the Helium Control Act of 1927, the Germans were forced to turn to hydrogen to inflate their rigid airship’s massive aluminum frame. A few stray sparks of unknown origin sealed its tragic fate in the history books, and the flammable gas was largely avoided by the industry for almost a century.

It is interesting then, that many investors and entrepreneurs are looking to flammable but highly efficient elements to help usher in the next generation of aircraft.

As all industries look to move away from the use of fossil fuels as the primary source of power for our aircraft — seen most notably in the automotive industry — aerospace engineers have been striving to find an alternative that offers similar benefits without significant drops in productivity, equipment efficiency, or environmental impact. The fuel cell technology in batteries has shown promise, but progress in the aerospace sector has been slow, with current technology still not up to the task of offering prototypes the range needed to match the needs of either military or commercial customers. Hydrogen fuel cells, by contrast, while offering the same zero emissions benefit, have a significantly higher energy density than battery cells — and three times the energy by mass than jet kerosene — and can provide a much more expansive range. One company pursuing the technology, ZeroAvia, is aiming for approximately 500 miles of range, which despite being half of what the standard aircraft is capable of today, nevertheless is sufficient to cover roughly 50 percent of domestic air travel.

What must also be considered in the technology discussion, however, is the inventory procurement strategies that will be required to support them. Such a strategy requires two primary points of emphasis: the need to store and refuel the hydrogen fuel cells, and the need to develop and maintain the electronic systems that use them. Both sectors present significant challenges aerospace OEMs will eventually be required to address should such technology be introduced into the mainstream, and both also present an exciting new opportunity for third parties to present solutions to help them fill such a void.

Consider, for example, the CHEETA project (“Center for Cryogenic High-Efficiency Electrical Technologies for Aircraft”), a collaboration between eight separate institutions including the Air Force Research Laboratory, Boeing Research and Technology, General Electric Global Research, and various universities to develop a fully electronic aircraft platform powered by cryogenically-cooled liquid hydrogen, which allows for superconducting energy transmission. At the moment, however, the electrical systems needed to connect such power sources to electrically-driven propulsion technologies and then apply them within a large aircraft have not yet been realized to the scale necessary for full production. Despite this, as progress is made, the possibility of it being developed is quickly transitioning from an “if” question to a “when” question.

Once introduced, the industry can expect an extreme demand as OEMs starting up and established alike strive to be the first to market. To avoid overpromising and under-delivering (as many promising young OEMs are wont to do), immediate attention must be paid to securing the supply chain by committing to all of the necessary electronic inventory needed to both manufacture and service the platform. Manufacturing solutions offered by third parties, such as the ones offered by Partstat that allow customers to immediately realize all the inventory necessary to complete the lifecycle of their platforms, are going to play a significant role in how future aerospace OEMs craft their business models.