Aerospace engineering: industry sector overview

Electric aircraft, vertical take-off and landing vehicles, supersonic aircraft and distributed propulsion are all potential areas to be pursued by the aerospace industry, says Andrew Smyth, a research engineer at Rolls-Royce.

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The aerospace industry is technically complex and engineers innovate on products that push the limits of technology. The work is multidisciplinary and involves designing components and systems; analysis of structures, fluids and electrical systems; manufacturing the technology; developing and testing it; and supporting the products in service.

Big manufacturing companies include Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier, who design, manufacture and build aircraft, and Rolls-Royce, General Electric and Pratt and Whitney, who design, manufacture and build engines. Safran Landing Systems, BAE Systems, Cobham and QinetiQ are other big names. There is a large network of smaller suppliers who support the big companies.

Trends and developments in the aerospace industry

As a broad theme, connected digital technology and data analytics are receiving a lot of attention. At a product level, things that are being focused on include electrical aircraft, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles, supersonic aircraft, distributed propulsion, and higher bypass ratio engine products such as geared fans and open rotor technology.

These are all exciting potential areas to be pursued by the industry but their success depends on the regulatory framework and the economics, such as oil prices and raw material costs, particularly the cost of some of the expensive and rare metals that are used by the industry.

Fuel is by far the greatest cost associated with operating an aircraft or airline. Manufacturers need to improve fuel efficiency by reducing the weight, drag and performance inefficiencies of their components and systems. Issues of safety and reliability are also paramount for this sector, as is meeting or exceeding environmental targets, such as reducing emissions or noise.

What life is like in the aerospace industry

Traditionally, project lead times are long compared to other industries due to the high level of regulation and technical complexity. It can take up to 20 years to develop a new technology from start to finish. However, product life spans are also long. The products you work on could be in service for more than 25 years and will form the basis for future technology.

It's a long journey so it's a collaborative effort. Engineers work in teams, which may include co-workers but also suppliers, contractors and academic partners. Team sizes can vary from a few individuals working on a specific problem all the way to hundreds of engineers developing and testing a new engine or aircraft.

While mobility isn't essential in this sector, there are opportunities to work all over the world.

Getting an engineering graduate job in the aerospace industry

Along with a solid technical background, good communication skills are absolutely critical. Engineers in this sector need to think and reason logically, and use a combination of forensic and creative thinking to solve problems. There's always a lot to do so the ability to plan, prioritise and judge the level of detail and time to spend on a task is important.

Internships are often the best way to get your foot in the door. Graduate programme can offer a chance to explore working in different areas and develop your skills, but direct entry is another good route in. Most companies offer lots of training and professional development opportunities, including the opportunity to move into different roles.

The highlights of a career in aerospace

  • Working on inspiring and innovative technology.
  • Having a tangible and positive impact on the world.
  • The opportunity to travel and work globally.

The aerospace industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • aerospace/aeronautical
  • chemical
  • control
  • electrical
  • electronics
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • manufacturing
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • power systems
  • software

Always check individual employers' requirements.

Thanks to Andrew Smyth for his help with this article. Andrew is a research engineer in the area of future aircraft at Rolls-Royce . He has a masters degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Cambridge and has been working in the industry for five years. He was also a runner up on The Great British Bake Off in 2016 .

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