Fully embracing Industry 4.0 is vital to the aerospace industry. That means accepting a cultural change as well as investing in technology.
Jeegar Kakkad is chief economist and director of policy at ADS, a trade organization for companies in the UK aerospace, defense, security and space sectors. He believes the success of Industry 4.0 requires a digital mindset from concept and design right through to production and process control.
As aerospace is one of the most technologically advanced manufacturing sectors, early adoption of Industry 4.0 has been really important. It has been critical in terms of improving productivity and competitiveness. But continuing to embrace Industry 4.0 is also essential to the future competitiveness of manufacturers. Suppliers in countries such as Mexico, Morocco and Malaysia are trying to ‘steal their lunch’. They can’t compete with them on labor costs, so have to compete on investing in technology and investing in Industry 4.0.
Kakkad also observes that the assembly of components for the larger aerospace manufacturers is now largely automated. Wing and engine assembly lines, for example, may be operated by just one person.
In addition, additive manufacturing has become an important Industry 4.0 technology and is now more pervasive in aerospace:
Just look at the new Airbus A350 XWB, which has more than 1000 3D printed parts made with a range of techniques. We are only likely to see this increase and spread to the use of even more different types of material.
But Kakkad added that, “the real thing we are lacking in aerospace is moving towards having a real digital mindset. When you are designing a new product or program, it’s important to approach it immediately from a digital perspective rather than trying to bolt it on at the end.”
Dr. Rab Scott, head of digital at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), in partnership with Boeing, says companies need to learn how to do more with data.
AMRC’s Factory 2015 is the UK’s first state-of-the-art production facility entirely dedicated to conducting collaborative research into reconfigurable, digitally-assisted assembly, component manufacturing and machining technologies.
It is where manufacturers can come along and meet the digital solutions. They can press that button, see the response, relate it to what they are doing in their facilities and it suddenly becomes real.
Here, researchers demonstrate the practicability of new technologies, be it Microsoft HoloLens, wearables or different information systems.
We do feasibility studies where we may have access to kit the manufacturers don’t—and we don’t have the pressures of production that they do. It’s about producing demonstrators of feasible solutions that can be adapted and adopted to shop floors.
Virtual Failure Is an Option
One research project focused on robotic countersinking technology, which enables robots to machine holes accurately in composite aircraft components. This is now used in production by BAE Systems.
According to Scott,
One of the things we are a great advocate of is that failure is not an option as long as you can fail digitally, fail quickly and learn from your failures. Let’s simulate, understand and build on a failure. Don’t start from ground zero every time. Fail faster because you can try more in the virtual world and it costs you less.
If you spend the investment in the virtual world, you can really extend your use of it. Rather than just using your digital assets for design and manufacturing, start using them for training, assembly and maintenance. Start using them throughout the whole life cycle because suddenly you are extracting more value from that same digital data.”
Capture the Knowledge
He also maintains that some Industry 4.0 solutions currently used in aerospace are at the global forefront, such as the use of RFID combined with smart tools:
These are really beginning to get adopted on a much wider scale within the industry.
The aerospace industry faces a huge challenge, with some 60% of engineers currently over the age of 50.
What we have to do is to capture their knowledge somehow. Industry 4.0 technologies are an absolute boon for that ability to capture how someone does something and then replay it later.
ADS’s Kakkad believes the cultural change is happening.
We are seeing a lot of big aerospace companies setting up offices in Silicon Valley. That is partly about technology transfer and being where all the best engineers are, but it is also about learning about how to embrace that digital mindset and employ Industry 4.0 throughout the business.
Airbus sent a strong signal recently when it lured Paul Eremenko away from Google to become its chief technology officer.
We are already seeing increased investment in automation within the sector. Within our own Aerospace Growth Partnership we are not only seeing investment in technology but also how investment in digital leadership can really drive change.
Aerospace is starting to put digital at the core of business strategy. I feel confident it’s not just recognizing the benefits of Industry 4.0, but starting to embrace the idea of investing in it too.”