Automotive vs Aerospace Engineering. The Truth within Industry

NB. This blog is based on my own personal experiences and knowledge within each of the industries. This has been a hot topic on the social media platforms the EFP runs on, which is why I have decided to write about it. From polls undertaken on Instagram, it seems that most of the businesses followers (54 - 56%) would prefer a career in aerospace. Before comparing and contrasting the 2 industries, I will provide a very brief (these are both very large industries) description of each industry.

Alternatively you can have a read of a more comprehensive description, from a mechanical perspective, attached to each heading from our Types of Engineering page.

Automotive Engineering

The automotive industry involves the conceptualisation, design, engineering, analysing, producing and quality managing road-worthy vehicles. The means that there are a wide range of opportunities within this industry. Common job roles include mechanical or electrical design engineers, supplier quality managers, manufacturing engineers, production coordinators, buyers, test engineers and many more.

In this industry there are a variety of sub-industries which make the automotive supply chain so large. An Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) is a typical large scale car production company. Common examples include Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Tesla and Jaguar Land Rover. Almost every OEM is reliant on a large supply chain as it is very difficult to undertake all functions required to build a vehicle. This is where Tier 1 suppliers come in. They are typically risk sharing partners with the major OEM’s and may be able to produce entire products such as a seat, engine components, extrusions, sheet metal panels, exterior panels of other materials such as SMC or plastic, steering systems and suspension systems. An OEM will typically decide how much internal engineering they undertake depending on the business expertise and the ability to manage a large supply chain. Following on from Tier 1 suppliers is Tier 2 suppliers. These are typically smaller businesses that are capable of producing a unique product or the same products as Tier 1 suppliers but on a smaller scale. Often when tensions arise between OEM’s and Tier 1’s, a Tier 2 supplier may step in to produce the products required and ensure the line continues producing vehicles.

This standard sequence of suppliers is very similar across the variety of road worthy vehicles, however, they won’t typically run the production line at the same rate. Common products which fall into this category include high-performance cars, trucks, buses, taxis and even other commercial vehicles such as camper vans (RV).

Aerospace Engineering 

Aerospace engineering is quite different to the automotive industry and is even more heavily supplier dependent. This is because the major aircraft manufacturers; Airbus and Boeing solely focus on the structure of the aircraft and integration on the ‘production line’.

This is a very different production line to the automotive production line because the marriage of components may take weeks as opposed to the minutes that it takes in automotive. Most of the suppliers in aerospace are large scale and well known. The major aircraft manufacturers cannot risk any faults with the components.

There are also many roles and sub-industries in aerospace. You can be a design engineer, manufacturing technician, certification engineer, stress engineer or a business manager to manage the integration between the leading manufacturers and suppliers. These roles are available to a wide range of sub-industries. This includes the engineering and manufacturing of airliners, small-scale private jets, military aircraft, space products such as rockets and satellites or even drones.

There is a fine line between the two industries and if you are a robust and have good experience in your chosen job role / field, it is quite easy to move between the two industries. Both industries rely on similar technologies but the process of getting from concepts to a finished product is what defines them.

The two main differences between these industries is the production volume and the level of regulation. In the automotive industry, having a high production rate allows for more unique tools such as press tools, extrusion dies or injection moulding tools to be made, as long as they are paid back to the business within x amount of vehicles. In aerospace, you don’t have the luxury and you often constrained by a list of standard parts that is determined very early on in a programme. This leads on to another major difference which I can only see changing more in the coming years with the electrification of the automotive industry. This is the fact the an automotive programme (design and development of a particular vehicle architecture) last between 5 and 8 years. In aerospace, most programmes will last for up to 40 years and even longer in some cases, as can be seen with the Boeing 747. The level of regulation is also a major factor which affects the process of performing certain engineering functions. In aerospace, a product must be analysed, tested and certified with the aircraft manufacturer before it can even be considered for use on an aircraft. This is the case no matter what the end function of the product, components or material is. The automotive industry is also heavily reliant on regulation, however, for new components to be integrated into the vehicle there is far less certification required. If it is a safety critical component it will typically have to endure a crash test. For any cosmetic items such as interior components or trim, CAE or even just simple material validation will suffice. Either way, it comes at a much lower cost to the rigorous testing required in aerospace.

Another important point to discuss is job security and competition, two aspects which are covered under Maslow's hierarchy - a key aspect for determining human motivation within business. The automotive industry is very biased on how well an economy is performing. The very large supply chains mean that this needs to be considered on an international basis. It is also one of the most, if not the most competitive industry in engineering. Companies are constantly trying to get the upper hand on one another, which in recent years has lead to scandals such as the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal and other legal proceedings involving safety. With this competition, companies are continually developing new technologies which may also be something that appeals to many individuals. In contrast the nature of the length of programmes in the aerospace industry means that contracts are often tied in for a much longer time with the money continually being provided throughout the programme from the customer. It is much less dependent on economies and the requirement for aircraft increases at a similar rate to population. There is much less competition and this is arguably due to the massive monopolies within this industry. Many aerospace companies are also at the leading end of technology, however, if you are involved in a long-term project, most of the core technologies will be defined at the start of the programme. Maybe this will change in coming years with many new companies entering the industry in a bid to build supersonic aircraft, electric aircraft and lower the cost of space exploration, which leads nicely onto the next key point.

In between these industries are some unique companies and more sub-industries. The Motorsport companies will look for both engineers with experience in automotive or aerospace. This is because the fundamental skills that are the backbone and crossover between the industries is very similar and I would argue that most universities group students studying these fields together for the first 1 - 2 years. Another example of this is SpaceX. SpaceX is not working in the same way as most of the big aerospace manufacturers and has taken the best of both worlds (automotive and aerospace) to produce rockets at a staggering rate, with respect to their size. They have also adopted a similar mentality to what many automotive companies do and perform many function in-house rather than solely relying on a risk sharing partner. Arguably, Elon Musk may go down in the rocket business history similarly to how Henry Ford did. He has managed to make rockets not only reusable but even cheap if they were expendable. Maybe this is down to the fact that he is leading a company in each of the industries that we are discussing.

The greatest piece of advice I have ever been given (an individual with a PhD and 30 years experience in engineering) was not to follow a set path too early on in my career. This is why I have studied a general engineering degree and followed a path which has lead me to experience automotive for nearly 4 years and aerospace for 1 year at a very young age in comparison to my peers. I would recommend anybody who is looking to go into these fields, to follow a generalised path of either mechanical or electrical / electronic engineering. The most important skill the major companies in both fields look for is the ability to use your knowledge to solve problems. This can be extremely constrained if you have not experienced certain scenarios or understood it from a first principles level.

Again, as stated at the beginning of this blog, this is only based on my personal knowledge and experiences. If you have any other thoughts to add to this blog, please don’t hesitate to comment or add your thoughts to one of our many social media platforms.

Luke T Seal Engineering