Redefining the Digital Scope in Manufacturing for Aerospace
Industry 4.0 is evolving manufacturing industries globally. Starting from robotics and automation in their assembly lines to cutting-edge aeronautical systems – aerospace companies had long been amongst the early adopters of digital technology. However, the current metamorphosis of digital technologies and their expedited implementation across other socially essential sectors has put the entire aerospace industry under immense pressure to focus on advancing manufacturing methodologies that could reduce costs and improve efficiency.
Advantages of digitalizing manufacturing for aerospace
In the past couple of decades, the design phase of aerospace manufacturing has been incrementally digitized from the vellum sheets, microfilms and drawings on paper using drafters to 2D and 3D CAD tools. This has also helped save engineering time by converting prolonged serial activities such as concept design, detail design, design verification, stage drawings, process planning, assembly planning, actual manufacturing, physical testing, final assembly, and final testing – into parallel activities. Such developments have also boosted manufacturing time, quality, and efficiency with highly agile design feedback implementation into the single source of truth – the 3D model. However, with the manual analysis and contextualization needed for the disparate systems and data sources for Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications, aerospace companies are under tremendous pressure to maximize profitability and improve operational efficiency. Faced with the need to adapt to digital disruptions continuously, incumbent organizations need to think differently about risk and resilience while embracing opportunities through driving innovation.
How could the Digital Thread enable aerospace companies?
There are many other new technologies like cloud, mobility, Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, and Blockchain that are augmenting myriad capabilities to digital manufacturing as a methodology. With the ever-increasing scope of impact, aerospace companies have felt the need to connect the design, supply chain, manufacturing, and aftermarket in a single ‘Digital Thread.’ This connection across the enterprise roles could increase collaboration, the agility of operations, product traceability with enhanced supplier quality management, and visibility for real-time performance metrics.
Broadly speaking, the four areas in which aerospace companies are leveraging the power of the Digital to manufacture for dynamic aerospace needs are:
Research & Development – R&D involves trial and error and the then a rare success. However, with the materials and production techniques in aero manufacturing being costly and time-consuming, the tryouts are inexpensively yet accurately done on the digital twin. Much before the actual product is made the 3D rendition of the product and the operational circumstances could be virtually replicated into the product’s digital twin for testing purposes. Even software capabilities, application lifecycle services, information security, and risk partner collaborations for R&D, could be adjudged with the help of the Digital.
Engineering & Manufacturing – The previously serial stages of design engineering and actual manufacturing are nowadays parallel in nature as design optimizations, process & assembly planning steps and other technical data are updated from any source into the 3D model for final manufacturing. Stringent checks on quality ensure the safest product made with the tightest tolerances possible but within quicker timelines than before as digital avoids the costly errors from missed or misinterpreted data.
Operations & Maintenance – The vast quantities of in-flight data captured from the innumerous sensors across the airplane’s body, engines and other complex systems, helps in optimizing future flights in terms of fuel-efficiency and passenger safety. Even insights for every airplane’s predictive maintenance is also derived from careful analysis of this in-flight data. Moreover, the appropriate training of the Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul (MRO) staff for quick yet accurate fault-finding and repair by recognizing the innumerous spare parts is made possible with the path-breaking Augmented Reality (AR) based goggles of today.
Supply Chain – An airplane or its engines comprise of so many parts that generally the OEMs produce some of the elements themselves and procure the rest from the supply chain. Without a digital manufacturing platform completely encompassing the entire product lifecycle, it becomes a nightmare to source parts. Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is used nowadays to print the essential component from scratch at the MRO premises, rather than wasting time, money and effort in procuring it from a non-digitalized supply chain.
The implementation challenges
The primary challenge affecting the widespread implementation of digital manufacturing in the aerospace sector is the price, time and effort needed for any OEM or supplier to digitalize their processes. To digitalize engineering and aftermarket phases of the airplane’s lifecycle at both the OEMs and the partners or supplier levels, there’s a massive change management activity needed that costs a bomb. It’s a massively capital intensive project from a software and hardware perspective comprising of changing and modernizing factory layouts, machines and data management systems and so on. All this can’t change overnight. Also training the people who use these machines and making sense of the data coming from the devices is needed.
Secondly, relative to other industries like automotive and consumer goods, where the design changes or product releases are very short with large volumes, the supply chain is also pretty much adapted to many of these technologies. However, in aerospace, the supply chain is complex and small in terms of suppliers because of the product complexity and volume.
Thirdly is the aspect of approvals and certifications. The digital way of doing things is yet not understood well enough. For example, if someone has approved some of these digital methods, there are still no standards of guidelines about how these things can be done. Though this confusion or lack of standards won’t stop or nullify all certifying activity, but this is another area which many companies are trying to address along with the approval authority.
The way forward for solutions
Comprehensive Digital Manufacturing platforms like those of Siemens or GE’s Brilliant Factory with end-to-end Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) support are the need of the day for digitalizing manufacturing for aerospace OEMs and suppliers alike. However, due to the massive cost of fully implementing Digital capabilities across the aerospace value chain, OEMs are much ahead of their supply chain partners in terms of digital implementation and has been continually urging their partners to digitalize their operations. With the slow pace of implementation, this push has now come to a shove and some OEMs have thankfully put the ball in the supplier’s court by saying ‘if you don’t change then well have to change our suppliers’. There is also a conscious effort from the technology providers to make it easier for suppliers to adopt these things because at an OEM level, digital technology can be adapted due to the larger scale of investment, but for the huge cost, it’s a deterrent for the supplier. Hence, the tech providers are trying to see how these can be leveraged by a lightweight or cheaper version where suppliers can fulfill the needs without fully digitalizing their whole organization.
For engineering service providers like QuEST, it’s the adoption of these technologies and the knowledge of the customer’s design & manufacturing processes that have helped us enable our aerospace clients. We have learned to marry the understanding of both – technology and the customer’s ways – to adeptly solve challenges for our customers. With the slow return on investment, we also have to make sure that our clients have some quick wins that instill their belief in further investments.
With a complete digital implementation across the aerospace value chain, it’s not just going to be evolutionary. Rather, it’s going to be a revolutionary improvement in the ways of traditional manufacturing. It’s going to halve cycle times, improve efficiency by significant percentages, ease decision making, and also improve time to market and quality. However, in my view, that’s not happening overnight and is most likely to take the next 3 to 5 years for complete implementation, while platform implementation and benefits realization will take anywhere between 2-4 years.