The UK government established Cranfield’s College of Aeronautics in 1946 to train young engineers in jet propulsion and ensure the technological revolution did not leave the war-weary nation behind. Almost eight decades on, the college’s successor, Cranfield University, is equipping today’s cohort for the digital age and the changes it is bringing to the way aircraft are designed and manufactured.


Source: Adobe Stock/Dassault Systemes

The university says using the same software as industry is the only way to create job-ready graduates

The postgraduate institution is teaming with Dassault Systemes to teach its students using the French company’s 3DExperience platform, after announcing the agreement at last year’s Paris air show. Cranfield says the tie-up will give young engineers – who often rely on outdated computer hardware and systems – access to the same software used by aerospace companies themselves.

“We’ve chosen to partner with Dassault Systemes because of the ecosystem it already has within the aerospace industry, as well as the cutting-edge technology it has developed through its modelling, simulation and optimization industry software,” says Professor Dame Helen Atkinson, pro-vice chancellor of the university’s School of Aerospace, Transport Systems and Manufacturing.

Dassault Systemes – founded 42 years ago as a spin-off from Dassault Aviation – is best known for its Catia virtual design tool, used widely not just in aerospace but throughout automotive, construction and other industries. 3DExperience is a cloud-based platform that allows multiple users across different locations and organisations to collaborate on so-called digital-twin projects.

Dassault Systemes already works with several educational establishments who use 3DExperience for aviation teaching, ranging from Wichita State University to the National Technical University of Ukraine. Olivier Ribet, executive vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says it is part of a strategy to “engage much more in the entire ecosystem, including universities”.

The supply chain disruption that accompanied the post-Covid recovery was a “wake-up call” that highlighted the need for aerospace companies to collaborate more closely with their suppliers, but also with the universities that supply their future talent and some of their research and technology resources, Ribet maintains: “We need to reconnect the dots between industry and academia.”

Dr Jafar Jamshidi, senior lecturer in integrated product development at Cranfield, adds that a chronic shortage of engineers – exacerbated by a retirement wave during Covid-19 – means the education sector must “create more job-ready graduates”. This means meeting not only the recruitment needs of big companies, but “boosting the confidence” of alumni to form entrepreneurial start-ups.

Cranfield is already introducing students to the 3DExperience platform and “embedding it in our current teaching activities”. It will be particularly appropriate, he says, for those on its model-based systems engineering (MBSE) MSc course, where students learn to design aircraft from scratch. “It really simulates what it’s like to be on an engineering team,” says Jamshidi.

MBSE is an engineering methodology that focuses on creating and exchanging domain models, rather than documents, and “being at the forefront of MBSE is crucial to our identity,” says Atkinson. She notes that Cranfield is ranked among the world’s top 30 universities for aerospace engineering. “That reputation depends on our collaboration with industry,” she says.

The collaboration includes recent ventures such as the Aerospace Integration Research Centre, with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, opened in 2017. It is the “only place where universities and companies can demonstrate, validate, and research at the platform level, up to the higher technical readiness levels more normally associated with business”, says Iain Gray, Cranfield’s director of aerospace.

Another offshoot is the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre, or DARTec. Using the university’s own airfield as a testbed – Cranfield was established on a former UK Royal Air Force base – students are working on challenges such as how next-generation radar technologies can help uncrewed air vehicles operate in civilian airspace.