Instead of the "blue" in the famous song by Rino Gaetano, it could be "green", the symbolic color of Leonardo's aircraft and helicopters. We are talking about the circular economy which is gathering increasing attention as a new way of managing the creation of value aligned with sustainability needs, thanks to the transition from a linear production and consumption system to a circular one.
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed greater attention on the circular economy model, which is at the heart of the EU’s European Green Deal. Companies are now accelerating plans to: make significant investments in technological and methodological innovation; implement digital technologies for managing business; establish virtuous ecosystems with customers and suppliers to develop traceable, transparent, open and effective supply chains and markets.
We recognise that the time has come for the high tech Aerospace and Defence sectors – which are associated with the production of large structures with long lifecycles (measurable in decades) – to quickly implement and develop its own approach to a circular economy. An internal survey carried out by Leonardo on fixed-wing and rotary-wing platforms highlighted how many activities are already operating on circular economy standards, and we are developing further possible actions to match circularity and value creation.
To date, over 70% of Leonardo's aircraft and helicopters are manufactured with recyclable metal parts. Looking at helicopters specifically, up to 60% of the components can be repaired rather than replaced. Furthermore, thanks to cutting-edge proprietary technologies, Leonardo manufactures many structural parts of its latest products using composite materials to reduce weight and consumption by approximately 15%, consequently having a positive impacting on the environment as a result of about 20% fewer emissions and a longer product lifecycle. The adoption of additive manufacturing for aircraft components, such as the M-345 or Tiltrotor, also saves energy and reduces production waste by up to 60%.
Furthermore, over 43,000 hours of virtual training were carried out during 2019 for plane and helicopter pilots, avoiding over 47,000 tons of CO2 emissions, and reducing wear and tear on training aircraft. Additionally, the intermediate update of software solutions and the replacement of only worn-out components allows the operational lifetime of planes, helicopters and related structures to be extended to over 20 years. In short, the opposite of planned obsolescence.
So far, much has been achieved in terms of design optimisation to reduce the quantity of materials used and extend products’ life spans. These circular economy practices can be further implemented by extending the adoption of eco-design approaches - already used by Leonardo for developing the Next Generation Civil Tiltrotor and the new generation of regional aircraft for international programmes - , advanced design methodologies, intense use of additive manufacturing, implementation of new technologies such as usage monitoring and new processes for recycling composite materials.
A case study concerns the use of new thermoplastic fiber-reinforced composite materials, easily recyclable, as part of Leonardo continuous investment into meeting circular economy standards and best practices. Further enabling actions have been identified in a more extensive use of digital technologies and the creation of an "eco-system" with customers and partners, to optimize the recovery and recycling processes of waste materials.
In a global scenario that requires more rational and sustainable management of resources, Leonardo's model – inspired by the guidelines of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, but designed for the needs of the company and the aerospace, defense and security sectors – is hitting its target.
The circular economy is, in fact, one of the areas that will be developed in Leonardo’s 2030 Masterplan, presented in 2019, which provides a new company roadmap on innovation, research and sustainability to face the challenges of the third millennium.