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AEROSPACE & DEFENCE Aerospace & defence future factories: A transformation imperative

Jan 6, 2020

There has been a paradigm shift in the way manufacturers build products in the aerospace and defence sector. The article delivers a better understanding of how one can create and capture value in this new environment, and how aerospace companies do not just need to understand what’s driving these changes, but also grasp just how consequential a role digital transformation will play in determining their future.

Manufacturing traditionally has been thought of as a process that turns raw materials into physical products, and the factory as the structure where manufacturing happens. Today the pervasive expansion of sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), not to mention ever more demanding customers, are driving the transformation. Computing costs are plummeting, connectivity is becoming ubiquitous and information flows freely. It is no longer a question of if or when the digital revolution will happen. The industry is in the middle of it, and it will transform the way manufacturers build products of every description—and companies’ response to this paradigm shift will define the future makeup of the A&D sector.

In an advanced manufacturing system, knowledge will have as much prominence as currency & capital. Highly automated, interconnected manufacturing tools will be designed to exploit information throughout the full range of value-adding activities spread across multiple production sites involving numerous supply chain partners. Self-regulating machines will customise what’s being built, allocate resources in the most efficient manner and interface seamlessly between the physical and virtual worlds of production and assembly. Predictive analysis will be done through feedback and control loops, based on real time shop floor information generated by wireless sensors in manufacturing equipment, processes and even products.

Northrop Grumman is one of the leaders in the aerospace industry’s drive towards future factory. “The foundation of our vision is our digital architecture — the building blocks on which our factory of the future will rest,” said Jeff Wilcox, Vice President – Engineering and Program Operations, Northrop Grumman. Based on the actionable insights that highly processed digital data will generate, companies expect factories of the future to offer a range of measurable benefits. Among them are – more efficient use of people and assets, including labour costs, working capital and fixed assets; greater capacity for innovation; the opportunity to enhance customer value and pricing power; the option of developing new products, services and business models and shorter product-development cycles.

As if these outcomes weren’t enough to motivate companies, especially given the generally difficult time large systems integrators have had in delivering programs on time and on cost, along comes a new administration. Whether this is a one or two term administration, the direct dialog towards the aerospace industry — pressuring some of the largest aerospace contractors to dramatically reduce the cost of complex civil and military programs — only underscores the need for industry to move aggressively toward implementing more efficient and flexible manufacturing systems.

Future factory hurdles

Even if companies were moving in lockstep toward digitising their factories (which they are not) they would still need to overcome major challenges. One of the most daunting challenge is that the large volume of IoT data generated by people, devices and machines (along with the complexity of the processing of events and decision making) will require a unified digital architecture. Universally accepted standards and protocols to ensure seamless communications and transfer of all kinds of data will be essential.

As it is, most manufacturing enterprises aiming to introduce the ‘future factory’ concepts already operate productions systems in which most devices and machines are connected with control systems via various layers of automation, such as enterprise resource management and product life cycle software programs. However, in current automated systems, virtually every sensor, device or machine has its own dialect for digital integration. To introduce and integrate advanced factory of the future technologies — as in the migration of production systems towards distributed and IoT capabilities, interoperability and intelligence — companies will need the appropriate IT system architectures based on consistent protocols. There is no such consistency now. “The future factory is predicated on all of these things working together, starting with common communication protocols,” explained Michel Tellier, Vice President – Aerospace & Defence, Dassault Systèmes, which is helping organisations in various industries address the problem.

Another challenge is cybersecurity. Protecting the integrity of data is already a huge issue for aerospace companies, some of whom have fallen victims to cyber bandits. With an expanding ecosystem of interconnected devices and machines will come the potential for an exponential increase in cyber crime, since hacking has become more organised.

Bottom line: Making sure information can be transferred securely will be as critical to future factory as establishing industry-wide protocols. All key technologies for the future factory are rapidly evolving, as in the case of robotics and advanced manufacturing, but they are mature enough for companies to begin or accelerate their transformation to digital factories that are adaptive, fully connected, analytical and more efficient. To keep pace with the technology advances, however, manufacturers should monitor their progress closely and invest in them. Manufacturers also should be concerned about finding the highly skilled talent that has the necessary apprenticeships, technical qualifications and degrees that companies will need to implement the future factory. The laws of supply and demand mean manufacturers are going to have to pay more if they want to attract the talent needed for the emerging industrial revolution.

Global aerospace & defence impact

While the inflection point of the early 1990s was far more consequential for the aerospace industry in the US, the paradigm shift currently underway will be just as impactful for companies around the world. That’s because aerospace companies in general are more global than they were 25-30 years ago. The industry also is far more competitive, with many non-US companies challenging their American counterparts for dominance in some areas. In Europe, the EU’s Factories of the Future Public-Private Partnership — with its emphasis on digitisation — aims to help manufacturers become more competitive, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. In Germany, researchers are experimenting with new technologies and machinery to improve production processes and digitise production systems. At Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology, which is driving Germany’s future factory initiative, researchers are rethinking the role of humans in manufacturing in favour of unprecedented levels of automation. The Airbus Group’s march toward transformation may be farthest along. Nonetheless, it still may be five to ten years before the company is ready to roll out a network of factories of the future; all of them will be geared to producing commercial aircraft. Its plan is to put one or two model facilities in operation, then proceed with a larger deployment.

Both India and China have their own ‘intelligent manufacturing’ initiatives, which will merge information and communication, automation and manufacturing technologies. In China, the idea is to exploit data generated by smart machines and devices to optimise manufacturing decisions autonomously, in real time. Their goal to improve quality and product innovation and shorten development cycles in industries is considered strategic for the country’s long-term future, including aviation/aerospace. India is working towards building architectures that can support its digital India vision, whose goals include delivering citizen services, like virtual education and making strategic industries, such as aerospace, more competitive.

Among the major industrialised countries, Russia is the conspicuous laggard in implementing future factory, so much so that the term ‘advanced manufacturing’ per se — at least as it’s defined in other parts of the world — is non-existent. The government is fostering the development of robotics, Big Data, information technologies and related future factory elements as single components. However, the concept of integrating these technologies into a fully integrated system that mines in-process data analytics to feed manufacturing systems upstream and downstream to improve digital manufacturing is some years away.

Dilemma for suppliers

It remains to be seen whether all suppliers will embrace the transformation as rapidly as they should. In fact, some may choose the status quo and face the dilemma of how to keep up to avoid falling behind competitors. Compared to some other industries, such as in the automotive sector, aerospace companies generally have not been particularly creative in using digital technology to create new business models and transform operations to improve customer responsiveness and grow their businesses. With history as the guide, the transformation will occur slower than necessary, mainly because of the industry’s conservative culture and general resistance to change.

Most major contractors understand they must transform, which is why all large systems integrators are at various stages of developing their version of the future factory. Moreover, they expect their partners to follow their lead, since a company’s supply chain is a cornerstone of its business success. However, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that a significant number of lower-tier suppliers may be taking a wait-and-see approach. This is one of the conclusions that reasonably could be drawn from an innovative manufacturing roundtable discussion at the 3DExperience Forum in Santa Clara, CA, in November 2016 and in a leading aerospace conference in Philadelphia later in the same month. At the forum roundtable discussion, about 30 participants were organised into groups of 10 individuals to respond to the specific questions tied to five themes pertaining to the future factory:

  • Competitiveness

  • Opportunity/business strategy

  • Culture/organisation

  • Workforce

  • Measures of success

Most participants expressed limited knowledge about the future factory and some indicated their companies were assessing the merits of investing in the infrastructure & the technologies needed to implement the future factory. Perhaps half a dozen or so flatly stated their companies saw no need to change the status quo. Only a small number indicated their companies are pursuing a future factory roadmap. About half of the participants said their company’s senior management were yet to articulate a vision for the future factory. However, some participants believed their organisations might be motivated to embrace the future factory if they learned that competitors were committed to Industry 4.0. Corporate culture and institutional inertia were cited as the main reasons for companies’ lack of commitment to the future factory.

Understanding the role and consequence

It is certain that the manufacturing landscape will face dramatic changes. Creating and capturing value in this new environment requires aerospace companies to not just understand what’s driving these changes but also grasp just how consequential a role digital transformation will play in determining their future. So, the questions all aerospace companies should be asking themselves is – does their future factory align with their business? How does one align with their OEM customers? What steps are necessary now to build the factory of the future? What are his/her competitors doing to adapt to an increasingly digital manufacturing world? What are the business risks of maintaining the status quo?

Republished with permission from Dassault Systèmes

Image Gallery

  • Most manufacturing enterprises aiming to introduce the ‘future factory’ concepts already operate productions systems in which most devices and machines are connected with control systems via various layers of automation

  • Self-regulating machines will customise what’s being built, allocate resources in the most efficient manner and interface seamlessly between the physical and virtual worlds of production and assembly

  • The questions all aerospace companies should be asking themselves is – does their future
    factory align with their business? How does one align with their OEM customers? What steps are necessary now to build the factory of the future?

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