Tuesday, May 21, 2024
CommentaryFrom service to manufacturing: Ethiopian Airlines verging towards 3D printing

From service to manufacturing: Ethiopian Airlines verging towards 3D printing

Ethiopian should use its partnership to diversify its activities. With the construction of its own hotel, which is currently underway, Ethiopian is indeed aiming at the diversification of its business activities. Embracing 3D printing technology will enable it to diversify its activities in ways that were unimaginable a few years back, writes Hailemichael T. Demissie.

Ethiopian Airlines is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary. The septuagenarian carrier has seen several milestones in its long years in the short history of the global aviation industry. In today’s world it is a fact that we can fly anywhere. This was not the case always. For the current generation, with the fading memory of the Wright brothers, it is as if aerospace technology was always with us. Aerospace technology is actually a recent innovation even by comparison with other technologies. It has, however, grown in phenomenal leaps and bounds and the potential for its continued exponential growth is still boundless.

The aviation industry has gained the notoriety for being a capital intensive sector. No wonder that several airlines have gone bust. In a conversation about Nigerian Air, an irate Nigerian national cracked a sarcastic joke commenting that ‘Nigerian Air’ is indeed true to its name for being ‘thin air.’ Many other African carriers and even carriers from Europe and other regions have vanished into thin air collapsing under the weight of capital requirements. Middle Eastern airlines that are performing well owe their survival and expansion to the massive infusion of oil money into the industry. Ethiopian Airlines is unequivocally one of a kind in this regard—its success is undisputed and its growth and expansion is self-made. The Ethiopian brand is a brand that every African takes pride in. It stands equal with such brands as Coca Cola, Mercedes Benz or BMW. Unlike these other brands, Ethiopian is conspicuously indigenous to Africa.

Ethiopian is indigenous as an African service industry—as a carrier as well as a proud owner of a training and maintenance hub. It is not indigenous in so far as the technologies it is using are concerned. The airplanes and the many other technologies it uses are acquired from foreign providers like Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier. Seen in light of the ventures that some countries are dabbling in the business of aircraft manufacturing, Ethiopian, and its owner, the Ethiopian Government have a lot more mileage to cover. From Indonesia’s brave jump into the aircraft building industry, challenging the dominance of the Western world in the sector, to the triumphant unveiling of the Chinese built giant aircrafts including the world’s largest amphibian airplane, the signs of the growing challenge to the dominance of the Western world in the sector are evident. This should give us food for thought and poke the scepticism that this might be a bit too ambitious for a poor country like Ethiopia.

Designing and constructing an airplane in Ethiopia might sound a wishful thinking but so is overcoming the challenges of running a successful airline in the cut-throat world of the aviation industry. If the mess that Kenyan Airways and South African Airlines are mired in is any indication, the survival and expansion of Ethiopian is close to a miraculous achievement.  Far from being a wishful thinking, Ethiopian hopping onto the manufacturing arena is what is currently happening. Ethiopian has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the South African based Aerosud Group – a leading manufacturer of aircraft parts with clients such as Boeing, Airbus and other aircraft manufacturers.  The Airlines is eyeing a slice of the global value chain in the manufacturing of aircraft parts and is partnering with Aerosud Group to manufacture aircraft parts in Ethiopia. The plan is to open thousands of jobs for Ethiopians in the tech intensive field of aircraft parts manufacturing. 

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The feasibility of the plan is what the partnering firms will continue to work on in the coming months. While the assumption is that the partnering firms have done their homework in the lead up to the signing of the MoU, there could be little doubt about the immense realistic potential of the project.  The powerful technologies of our time are now at our fingertips accessible to anyone having the innovative drive. The technologies have equipped us with capabilities that were once unthinkable. One such technology that the aerospace industry has widely embraced is 3D printing technology. The proposed partnership between Ethiopian and the Aerosud Group is especially significant for the potential exploitation of the technology using the Aerosud experience in this regard as pointed out by Johan Steyn, managing director of Aerosud Group.The Group has been in the business of 3D Printing aircraft parts for years now and our great hope is that the technology transfer that will be realised as an outcome of the proposed partnership will benefit the entire manufacturing sector in Ethiopia.

3D printing technology also known as digital or additive manufacturing has been around for the last three decades. It was, however, in the last few years that it shot into global prominence. A 3D printer produces a real three dimensional physical object directly from a virtual model of the product that is digitally designed on a computer. The design of the object to be printed is done from scratch using applications such as Computer Aided Design (CAD) or could be prepared using the scan of the object to be printed. 3D printing technology is developing at a breathtaking speed and now there are printers that can print with volume ranging from nanoscale objects such as cellular implants to mega scale objects like aircraft cabin and even a villa. From plastic resin, to metal powder, from human tissue to desert sand, from ceramics to construction waste, 3D printing is now done with more than 300 materials. In principle, everything is 3D printable and, hence, 3D printing spans across all sectors of economic and social life. Some of the products that have already been 3D printed include basic consumer goods, medical devices, musical instruments, cars and car parts, and crucial advances are being made in printing spare human organs using human tissue and biodegradable plastic.

Among the earliest adopters of the technology are the aerospace and automotive industries. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner Ethiopian owns has thirty 3D printed parts but Boeing is planning to use more 3D printed parts in its aircrafts. As of 2014, it has already printed over 22,000 parts for its various products. The other aircraft owned by Ethiopian, the Airbus A350 XWB, has one thousand 3D printed parts. Designers at Airbus are aiming towards printing the entire plane in one go at the press of the print button. One of the parts that Boeing 3D prints for its 787 aircraft is the environmental control ducting (ECD) which was previously made out of 20 parts. 3D printing has made it possible to produce the ECD as one piece dispensing with the assembly and other post processing work that was needed earlier.

Researchers in Australia have printed a jet engine and GE, the manufacturer of the engine of the Boeing 787 aircraft, has printed a functioning jet engine. In both cases, the engines were not printed in one step but were assembled using the 3D printed parts. This was no small feat given the complexity of the jet engine and the huge cost and time savings that were made while printing the engine. The aerospace industry is identifying the increasing number of advantages that 3D printing offers. 3D Printing of parts and products results in little or no waste during production. It brings down the parts count of products that weigh less and are stronger hence saving fuel and helping the planet with reduced emissions. It will be suicidal for the industry to pass up these benefits in preference to the traditional machining of aircraft parts. 

Ethiopian will have to focus on the strategic significance of its partnership with the Aerosud Group with these benefits in mind. The Aerosud Group is one of the leading suppliers of 3D printed aircraft parts currently enjoying a big chunk of the market in the aircraft parts supply.

Ethiopian should use its partnership to diversify its activities. With the construction of its own hotel, which is currently underway, Ethiopian is indeed aiming at the diversification of its business activities. Embracing 3D printing technology will enable it to diversify its activities in ways that were unimaginable a few years back. 3D printing technology will enable the Airline to become a manufacturer of not only aircraft parts but almost everything else. In principle, every material item is 3D printable and the 3D printer is capable of making anything and everything.

The technology is not capital intensive and it will be the skills gap that will remain the major challenge. Despite the low capital outlays that the technology requires, industries in the advanced countries were reluctant to adopt the technology and this has resulted in decades long adoption lag. In Ethiopia, the trend is otherwise. Industry has taken the lead and academic institutions have been slow in engaging the technology. This will lead to the worsening of the skills shortage. There will be a rise in demand for a skilled workforce and it is the core responsibility of academic institutions to train the new workforce and re-train the existing workforce that can handle the technology. The University of Gondar is currently leading research and education initiatives on 3D printing technology in Ethiopia. The University in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and the Science, Technology Information Centre (STIC) is finalizing preparations to introduce and implement various interdisciplinary projects on 3D printing and allied technologies.

Ethiopian, as one of the most immediate beneficiaries of the technology, has been supporting initiatives taken by educational institutions. Last May, the Airline sponsored the International Conference and Exhibition on 3D Printing that was hosted by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. For the successful deployment of the technology, the Airline should work in close cooperation with educational institutions and its collaboration with Addis Ababa University is a step in the right direction. Ethiopian is hoping to create thousands of jobs here in Ethiopia; it is unlikely that it will be able to meet the demand for skills all by itself. Other institutions will have to fill the gap that will remain a challenge to the national flag carrier and the entire manufacturing sector in Ethiopia.

Compared to the fanfare marking the handover of the Dreamliner or its new acquisition, the Airbus A350 XWB, the signing of the MoU with the Aerosud Group was a simpler occasion typical of a low key solemn moment. The initiative is, however, worthy of the same or greater fanfare that was accorded to the handover of the Dreamliner or the A350 XWB for this is a step towards making the Airbus as opposed to purchasing it. The planned activities are nothing short of revolutionary. Global manufacturing is going through what The Economist magazine called the Third Industrial Revolution triggered by technologies such as 3D printing. Ethiopian Airlines has joined this revolution with humble but audacious steps first by acquiring aircraft that were part manufactured with 3D printing technology, and now by entering into a partnership with a global player in 3D printing to manufacture aircraft parts here in Ethiopia. As emphasised by the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, during the MoU signing ceremony, we should expect a runaway success for Ethiopian Airlines as this partnership is laden with the potential to unleash a manufacturing revolution in the entire manufacturing sector for the whole country and not just for Ethiopian. Considering the history of success that both Ethiopian and Aerosud have under their belts, it cannot be doubted that they can also pull it off this time around. However, they should be reminded that time is of essence and need to accelerate on the next steps they need to take.

Ed.’s Note: Hailemichael T. Demissie (PhD) is Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Gondar, and Senior Research Fellow at the Nairobi-based research think tank, the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). He guest edited the special issue of The African Technopolitan on the themed ‘3D Printing Africa’s Development’. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily refect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].-

Contributed by Hailemichael T. Demissie

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