Dassault Systèmes: the decarbonization of aviation


When it comes to scope and scale, Dassault Systèmes is an industry leader. The French corporation has 290,000 customers and 25 million users across 11 industries around the world.

As for aviation, Dassault Systèmes is helping to make low-carbon flights a reality. Hardly a day seems to go by without a story in the news about the decarbonization of the aviation industry. With climate change a major global challenge, the aviation sector is playing its part in safeguarding the future of the planet. But, as David Ziegler, Vice President, Aerospace and Defense at Dassault Systèmes, explains, this is not a new concern. 

“I think it’s long been a primary goal of the aviation industry to decarbonize itself. Maybe not in these words, but actually since the 1950/60s. Each generation of new aircraft engines are in the range of 20% fuel emissions reduction on the passenger maintenance body. It’s not a new topic.”

The global air transport industry is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. A key part of this is investment in technology to combat climate change, something of which Dassault Systèmes is all too aware.

Ziegler says: “We’ve been partnering with major aerospace companies to contribute to the projects of clean aviation, making sure that government funds will come into direct research for decarbonizing aviation. We’ve been partnering as well with government funding research entities to contribute to that decarbonization. But also, we are working with a lot of small and medium companies and start-ups that are vibrant projects in that community.”

So, with all the work being done in this area, when does Ziegler think we can expect low-carbon flights to become an industry standard?

“It’s going take a long time. While the full aviation industry is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, the technology isn’t quite ready yet. But if we look at some milestones, we can expect the first cabin for flights with electrical, vertical take-off and landing aircraft, that’s short-range segments, in the 2024-2025 timeframe.

“If we look a bit further ahead in the future, I think that by 2035, that’s been declared as the ambition by Airbus to have the first flight of a carbon-neutral aircraft based on hydrogen technology. So, these will target the regional market – the 1,000 nautical mile range.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic has had a major impact on the aviation industry and its efforts to decarbonize. In April 2020, airline capacity reduced by 75% due to coronavirus, revenues plummeted, and company strategies had to be rethought. Does Ziegler think that the pandemic gave the aviation sector time to reflect on decarbonization?

“What the pandemic has shed light on is obviously more and more interest for the public at large to focus on greenhouse gas emissions. We need to change the way we behave, we need to become more sustainable. So that’s the first point which is accelerating that transition…But also, this clearly was accelerated by governments. We’ve seen massive €4 billion plans in Europe for aviation to engage on decarbonization, and a lot of research funded to move towards hydrogen aircraft. Essentially, the pandemic was a little bit of a stop-gap, if you will, to think about what the future should look like.”

Nevertheless, airlines struggled financially during the pandemic, the evidence of which has been reflected in various company results.

“It’s been a hard hit on the airlines and their focus was clearly to reduce investments to run their planes, but also to make sure that they could weather the crisis from a financial standpoint and from a human standpoint, making sure they kept their pilots afloat and kept them certified for flying their aircraft. But we are seeing the next wave of purchasing aircraft – in that the pandemic was a moment when airlines decided to ground their older fleets that were less fuel efficient. What we’re seeing now is actually a pick-up trend where essentially the airlines are buying much more fuel-efficient aircraft and therefore are contributing to reducing carbon emissions. Some of the examples are the recent announcements by Airbus and Boeing of large purchases of new aircraft which are burning less fuel than the previous generations. So, in essence, while there was not a crazy amount of investment during the pandemic, the orders that are coming now are going to massively reduce the carbon footprints.”

As for Dassault Systèmes, work hasn’t stopped.

“During that [pandemic] period, while we were working a lot with our customers, even in remote locations, there has been a lot of focus on digitalization which significantly helps companies to become more sustainable. So, we’ve continued to work with our customers that have kept investing in digitalization or have even increased their efforts in digitization during that time.

“With regards to decarbonization, we focused during these pandemic years on what needs really to be done to decarbonize aviation. It’s a complex topic in terms of technology but we’ve developed a specific solution to evaluate the total footprint of greenhouse gas emissions from the design stage of the product.”

With Dassault Systèmes, aviation companies can create live virtual replicas of hydrogen fuel, sustainable aviation fuel (SAFs) and electric aircraft technologies for propulsive and non-propulsive energy systems. They can plan and test them at any point in the supply chain, all before real-life application. In doing so, they effectively deliver better fuels, better planes and a more robust value network.

Ziegler says that the company’s virtual technology can be crucial for aviation companies working towards decarbonization.

“Airlines will need to change their operations, change the maintenance of their aircraft. This is a massive technological change that needs addressing. And this is why creating it in a virtual space, what we call a virtual twin, allows all the aircraft designers and manufacturers to design their product from design to operations on a single platform in the virtual world, enabling all the stakeholders to collaborate on that platform. That’s what we call essentially the power of the virtual twin.”

He continues: “What we mean by the virtual twin is essentially the digital expression of a product, an industry or a system in the way it’s shaped, the physical rendering of it, how it behaves…It starts from the earliest planning, the definition, the requirements for the product, then goes through all the design stages, all the life cycles of manufacturing operations, and even sustainment and disposal. Essentially it enables companies to have their product tested in a virtual world, test how it’s going to behave, test how they are going to produce it, before they start actually engaging with the manufacturing and making it a real product.”

Looking to the future, Ziegler has some thoughts on technological advances in the field of decarbonization.

“The most promising technology to reduce emissions in the short term is electrical propulsion, what we call distributed electrical propulsion. There’s a lot of challenges to solve, especially on the battery side, on the energy management side. But there’s also the propulsion makers, the guys that are making the engines, they will need to develop new types of engines to work under these new electrical batteries, or different types of propulsion energy.

“When we’re looking at the medium range type of aircraft, but as well the medium timeline in the next 10 years, that’s going to be hydrogen, what we call hybrid electrified aircraft, so that’s going to be older fuel cell development. So that will be having hydrogen on board that’s going to generate electricity to make that aircraft fly. And then, in the longer range, we’ll see a full development of direct propulsion by hydrogen in the turbines. And this will create new research on the tanks for hydrogen because it’s going to be a massive development of surface within the aircraft. We’ll see new types of aircraft. Where are these massive tanks going to be? In the wings? Elsewhere? It’s a big question.”

In terms of electric airplanes for commercial travel, they may be coming sooner than we think.

Ziegler says: “If we’re talking about small aircraft, city to city or cities to airport, the first flights are already happening in the test phase, and probably commercial activities will start around 2025. The big bet right now is whether that’s going to take off and we’ll see a completely new industry.

“If we’re talking about regional aircraft, we’ve seen a lot of prototypes flying on hybrid aircraft propulsion technologies. Whether that technology is ready yet to come into the market, I would say my best guess would be 2028/2029…For larger aircraft, I would like to see that in my lifetime. But that’s going to be more in the range of 2040.”

While much has been written about decarbonization of the aviation passenger sector, less is known about the defense industry.

“Well, to be honest, defense companies are much less focused on decarbonization,” says Ziegler. “When you’re producing a jet fighter, the question is definitely not how much fuel you burn. It’s more about creating a defense system that is able to block a threat. And there’s not that much focus on the type of greenhouse gas emission. There is a focus, though, on fuel reduction. Because the less fuel you burn, the more range you get. So that’s a tactical advantage. But I would say that in the defense sector, mostly decarbonizing is a question of reducing the fuel consumption of your aircraft. That’s energy management, essentially.”

Meanwhile, there has been some good news for Dassault Systèmes recently. It has been included in the second edition of the Financial Times’ 2022 Europe’s Climate Leaders list, making it one of five aerospace and defense companies to be ranked among a total of 400 firms.

“We are very proud of this,” Ziegler says. “But it’s also a very good testament to what our motto is. Sustainability is really at the heart of what we do. And our motto is to provide business and people with 3DEXPERIENCE universes to imagine sustainable innovation, capable of harmonizing product, nature and life. And this is really what we want to do. Not only because we believe that’s mandatory for mankind, but also because it makes very good business sense for customers.”

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