Panelists at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg have predicted ongoing pressure on the supply chain as aircraft production rates continue to hit record highs.

“There’s a lot going on and there’s also a lot of strain on the supply chain,” Tronos Aviation Consulting (TAC) managing officer Gary Weissel said.

That pressure is coming from several directions. Production rates are increasing, several new aircraft programs are underway, and the geographical spread of manufacturing facilities is growing.

Meanwhile, improved industry profitability means airlines have more money is available to invest in cabin upgrades, lighter-weight cabin components, denser seating and inflight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) upgrades, taking up a “massive amount” of design capacity.

“Right now, we’re still in this boom market and that puts lot stress on the industry,” Weissel said.

Widebody production alone will double over the next decade. Weissel observed that widebodies carry seven times more cabin complexity than narrowbodies. This means a production rate of 30-35 widebodies per month is roughly equivalent to 200+ narrowbodies.

“We haven’t seen a doubling of the supply chain,” Weissel said. “Often the bottleneck isn’t production capacity, it’s engineering capacity. Whether it’s a single-aircraft project, or 100 aircraft, the volume of engineering needed is identical.”

He estimated that around 8.5 million seats will be required for production and retrofit over the next 10 years, as part of an overall market valued at $136 billion. The level of stress this places on the supply chain will depend on how well companies prepare to manage this growth.

Boeing Global Services interior modifications and leasing director Andrew Masson also sees a strain from ever-increasing production rates. “Production rates are doubling, and they continue to go up and up and up. We have way more demand than supply, so we need a much faster, more agile supply chain. At the moment, we are struggling [as an industry] across the board. We need to speed up the supply chain. A lot of it comes down to speed.”

Aircraft like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 are very data-driven, meaning that suppliers need to work more closely with the original equipment manufacturers like Boeing. This is changing the way that the supply chain does business.  “We are unaware of a single 787 reconfiguration being done without Boeing support,” Weissel said.

Honeywell Aerospace GoDirect Software & Services VP & general manager John Peterson said that support hardware has become more commoditized, but there is now a greater requirement for software packages.

Meanwhile, cost and utilization pressures mean that airlines are placing greater pressure on heavy maintenance checks, using the downtime to perform various aircraft upgrades. “Now, all of a sudden, a C-Check isn’t about the inspection, it’s all the [other] work to be done,” Peterson said. “It’s hard getting enough touch labor, in all MRO shops around the world, to get all the tickets done.”

Safran Cabin ZEO EVP Scott Savian said cost is one of the airline priorities that are pulling product development in four—often conflicting—directions.

Airlines are looking to maximize revenue (eg., denser configurations), enhance the user experience (for passengers, crews and maintenance workers), be different (to stand out from competitors) and minimize cost. “The mission for each airline is to understand what they’re trying to accomplish and to find the right balance for them,” he said. “It’s about understanding all four variables.”

“I think there’s tons of opportunity to take cost out of the system,” Masson from Boeing said. “This is crazy. Why do we need to have such complicated fittings? One of problems is this is an industry of engineers. Engineers like to engineer things and that drives customers crazy, because they have to spend money on spares. There’s an opportunity to take costs out, for sure.”

The lack of standardization and long regulatory lead times was a common theme among AIX speakers. “One of biggest strains on the supply chain today is the drive for differentiation,” Savian said, because of the design capacity that this takes up. “The stress on the industry is making the desire to deliver new customized products is also a risk [for suppliers].”

He added that the industry is ripe for a much simpler way of customizing things, enabling the industry to be more flexible and responsive. “The issue is that there is so much customer activity—which just absorbs engineers like you can’t imagine—so to step back is a challenge. Is there a benefit to consolidation of the industry, that being part of a much bigger company means you could have time to step back, step aside?” he asked.

An audience member from Chicago-based United Airlines said carriers might be more willing to experiment more, if lead times did not commit airlines to sticking with modifications for 10- to 15-year periods.

Weissel from TAC replied, saying that regulators like the FAA are trying to figure out a way to speed up cabin certifications, so they can be done by similarity or through simulation, which could reduce administrative lead times.

The problem is the industry tends to be secretive, because every company wants to design something that is special, Duncan Aero consultant Nigel Duncan said. But he added this still leaves a lot of scope for underlying standardization. “This is the largest aircraft interiors event in the world. Is it collaborative enough? I would suggest it’s not,” he said.

Victoria Moores