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Challenges in RPAS manufacturing

Picture of Juan José Calvente

Juan José Calvente

AERTEC / Aerospace & Defence Systems


As we were already able read a few weeks ago on this same blog, the design of RPAS involves many peculiarities which have to be taken into account. Now we will continue with the challenges that come up in the manufacturing stage.

The first specific fact companies dedicated to this industry have to consider is the number of RPAS units the client tends to order from them.

Perhaps the mid-range manufacturing segment is the most difficult in this regard. It is possible to set up industrialised production chains for small multirotor drones due to the number of units distributed. The Chinese company DJI is probably the one which has best understood the leisure market in this niche. In just a few years, it has grown from a small company located in Shenzhen to become a multinational with more than 6,000 employees and offices in the United States, Japan and half of Europe. For its part, the market for larger RPAS is clearly geared at military applications and should be considered on another scale altogether. Geopolitical concerns and the huge budgets of companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Boeing come into play here.

If we focus our attention on medium-sized RPAS, the first challenge which needs to be addressed is to narrow the existing gap between what can be put forward in a theoretical design on a CAD tool and the way of implementing said proposals in an actual manufacturing plant. The manufacturing techniques for this kind of aerial platforms are eminently manual in the factory and it is not always easy to make the moulds and have the support tools available to assemble the structures.

It is precisely here that the engineer has to rely more on the etymology of the word that refers to his/her profession, without losing sight of the philosophy of an industrialised product. The engineer has to define and implement manufacturing processes well, exercise control over the product’s configuration and traceability and put forward creative solutions which allow a reduction in the number of moulds needed to manufacture several configurations of the same product, which at the same time have to be robust and economic. As for the tooling, it is perhaps advisable to use a combination of off-the-shelf industrial elements and other tailor-made elements to configure a complete solution.

Another fundamental problem resides in the shortage of specialised suppliers. Though some manufacturers are already specifically dedicated to RPAS (with all their peculiarities), a large number of them have a background in model aeroplanes or general aviation. This entails the drawbacks of under or over-fulfilling design requirements that exert a direct influence on the product’s performance, along with problems like possible spare parts shortages, high prices due to small amounts or the need for tailor-made elements, which suppliers are not always willing to supply for a small number of units.

It is on this point that the democratisation of additive manufacturing and cost adjustments can become a medium-term solution to have small runs of tailored solutions available in the market at a reasonable price.


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