The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

For the Covid-battered Aerospace Sector, new eVTOL Partners Offer a Chance to Diversify

Spanish aerostructures specialist Aciturri started talks with eVTOL aircraft developer Lilium over a possible collaboration before the Covid pandemic cast a dark shadow over its core business supporting leading airliner manufacturers including Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer. The move proved prescient, opening an opportunity to diversify Aciturri's activities in the dynamic advanced air mobility sector, which seems immune from the virus’s stultifying effect on the air transport sector.

Under the long-term partnership announced on February 23 with Lilium, Aciturri will produce all primary composite structures for the Lilium Jet eVTOL aircraft, whose developer expects to start series production around the end of 2024. The company’s engineering team will work closely with counterparts at Lilium on finalizing the design of the composite airframe structures, as well as planning the manufacturing process.

Aciturri will make the structures, including the fuselage, wing, canard, spars, flaps, and doors, at its plant on Boecillo, around 125 miles northwest of Madrid, before transporting them to Lilium’s purpose-built final assembly line at Wessling in southern Germany. The parts will consist of carbon fiber composite materials supplied by Toray, with which Lilium signed a contract in May 2020.

Aciturri was formed in 1977 by the Clemente Zarate family and has been active in the aerostructures sector for more than three decades, having been an early pioneer of the use of composite materials to build aircraft. It is also a tier-one supplier to other aerospace groups including GKN, Daher, and Airbus Defence & Space, and produces engine components for powerplant manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce, Safran, and ITP Aero.

In January, the group’s facility in Miranda de Ebro became the first operation in Spain to achieve Nadcap accreditation for its quality standardization and improvements to manufacturing procedures and processes. At Boecillo, where the Lilium structures will be made, the company recently installed a new computer numerical control trimming equipment and a paint shop for large structures. At its Ayuelas facility, which is one of ten company sites around Spain, it has invested in a new high-speed machining center for making aluminum parts.

According to Aciturri commercial director Vicente Brisa, the company has had a similarly broad scope of engineering responsibility with other risk-sharing partners. Nonetheless, it is now prioritizing the new project with Lilium and is assigning a large team to lay the groundwork for the remaining design work and preparations for the manufacturing phase of the program.

The group has over 2,200 employees at sites that also include some facilities in Portugal and Brazil. For 2019, it reported revenues of €623 million ($757 million) although the balance sheet for 2020 seems almost certain to be diminished by significantly reduced production rates for its airliner manufacturing clients.

Lilium selected Aciturri as its partner from a short-list of three other leading aerostructures groups. Tier one suppliers such as GKN, Sonaca and Triumph Aerospace Structures are also aiming for partnerships in the eVTOL sector, with Triumph already being involved with U.S. company Jaunt Air Mobility.

Overseeing the selection process for Lilium was chief programs officer Yves Yemsi, who was previously senior vice president for procurement programs and supply chain with Airbus, where he had previously worked with Aciturri. In January, former Airbus CEO Thomas Enders joined the board of Lilium. 

“This long-term partnership allows us to work collaboratively with Lilium through its early operational years, and beyond, throughout which we will continue to explore new methods and advanced technologies which are advanced techniques are capable of achieving, to ensure production of the highest quality and at growing scale,” commented Aciturri CEO Alvaro Fernandez Baragano.

Lilium was formed in 2015 by four young German aerospace engineers and has since attracted more than $375 million in financial backing, mainly from international venture capital groups. It is still finalizing the design of the full-scale prototype for the Lilium Jet, and this is expected to be larger than an earlier technology demonstrator, with seven seats.

The aircraft, which is powered by 36 all-electric ducted fans, would fly to a range of up to around 185 miles and speeds of just over 60 mph. Lilium is working on plans to establish a network of 10 or more vertiports across Florida, with commercial operations slated to begin in 2025. The company has partnered with Spanish airports group Ferrovial and intends to provide scheduled regional services rather than operate the on-demand air taxi model favored by many eVTOL aircraft startups.