The latest generation of industrialisation – Aerospace 4.0 – is now firmly with us. Alan Peaford looks at the highs and lows of the new revolution.

There have been industrial revolutions before. They have seen huge upheaval, riots and massive social change. Today, we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, the digitalisation of industry, and it is beginning to byte into aerospace.

According to PWC research, the aerospace, defence and security sector is digitising essential functions within the internal vertical value chain, as well as with their horizontal partners along the supply chain.

More than three-quarters (76%) of aerospace, defence and security companies surveyed report they are already investing in digital operations solutions and expect to have achieved an advanced level of digitisation and integration in five years’ time – higher than any other sector surveyed by the consulting partnership.

Companies are revelling in the opportunity to tighten global supply chains, drawing suppliers into the network, getting them more coupled and using new technological opportunities to link them through a wide range of design, supply chain, demand and other forms of data. They are also developing new products and tools based around data and data analytics, in some cases opening up potential for new data-driven business models that can widen value-chain positioning, PWC said.

The framework for the digital transformation of the industry stretches from cloud computing and mobile technology, through to the use of augmented reality, big data analytics, smart sensors, location detection technologies, advanced human/machine interface and authentication and fraud detection.

Changing relationships

ADS Group’s Sameer Savani is facilitating a digital manufacturing group to coordinate efforts toward achieving the benefit of the technologies by increasing productivity and competiveness through integrated, automated and optimised production flows.

“Emergent outcomes are significantly different relationships between designers, suppliers, manufacturers integrators and customers, as well as between humans and machines, and there are huge implications for future skills in manufacturing,” Savani said.

The purpose of the special interest group is three-fold, according to SavaniI.

  • To further the industry’s understanding of Aerospace 4.0;
  • To identify and share best practice in order to help manufacturing and service organisations to implement the concept that are appropriate to them; and
  • To represent industry before UK Government on the direction of the digitalisation agenda, to secure the support that the industry needs in order to maximise the opportunities.

Technologies such as 3D printing are already being put to use in production and in repair and maintenance. The focus is on flexible systems that reduce cost, improve quality and boost productivity.

Automation takes off

Automation is also taking off with greater adoption of robots and automated guided vehicles. Other technology, such as virtual and augmented reality, drones, flying robots and natural language computing, offer both future productivity and product opportunities, PWC said.

Manufacturing is likely to face the biggest need for change. There is universal agreement that tomorrow’s factories will be intelligent, highly responsive units where ‘smart’ components will find their own way to becoming products using the ‘internet of things’ to talk to machines and people.

The intelligent work bench

One UK company, Meggitt, is leading the revolution. Its business M4 – Meggitt modular modifiable manufacturing – is turning traditional factory layout and flow on its head by introducing a groundbreaking combination of present and future technology, smart tools and big data, according to Chris Allen, Meggitt group director for engineering and technology.

“In around 18 months, the start of that revolution, our pioneering intelligent work bench, will be deployed in multiple Meggitt factories, helping humans speed up the production of a diverse range of low-volume, highly intricate products and providing a quantum leap in quality and traceability,” he said.

The closed loop adaptive assembly workbench (CLAAW) includes laser and video guides that show operators which parts to pick, place and fit in sequence; built-in cameras that connect operators to experts for training and problem-solving in real time; and all the while cameras keep detailed records throughout assembly, enhancing traceability and capturing idea for improvement.

“M4 will enable us to make a wider variety of components in each factory, maximise use of all our state-of-the-art equipment and integrate new technologies when they come on stream,” said Allen. “Big data, captured at each stage of manufacturing, will feed into improved assembly and design, taking each of our factories closer and closer to performance gold.”

M4 is backed by the Aerospace Technology Institute, IBM, the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Coventry.

Data at Rolls-Royce

Digital technologies and increased use of data are having an impact right across one of the UK’s largest manufacturers, Rolls-Royce.

Alan Newby, director, aerospace technology and future programmes, explained how the company is seeing great benefits from digital transformation through manufacturing and supply chain to operations.

“If we can do more of the testing in the computer before we start building hardware it’s much more efficient and allows us to solve problems much earlier before we start building vehicles,” Newby explained.

“We can also now start using data to anticipate problems in service and solve them before they even happen.”

Watch our video interview with Alan Newby:

Elsewhere, augmented reality (AR) is revolutionising manufacturing. AR overlays virtual reality on real objects, providing all the necessary data a technician needs to make an assessment or perform a task.

Lockheed Martin’s ‘cave’

At Lockheed Martin’s collaborative human immersive lab (CHIL) in Colorado, this technology is being used on a variety of spacecraft, including detailed virtual reality examinations of the next Mars lander, ahead of its 2018 mission.

This all happens in a virtual reality facility called ‘the cave’. CHIL manager, Darin Bolthouse, said.

“What the cave allows us to do is see a full-scale model in an immersive way. We are reviewing the layout of the design of the spacecraft here. We see different portions and parts of the systems, and some of the boxes that control the guidance navigation of the spacecraft. With the cave we are able to look at the design and look for improvements.”

AI on the radar

AR is also being applied by the airline industry. A minority of airlines already have artificial intelligence (AI) on their radar, according to the 2016 Airline IT Trends Survey co-sponsored by SITA and Flight Airline Business. Last year, 6% were working on AI pilot programmes, but by 2026 numbers are forecast to reach 44%.

SITA – the IT specialist owned by the airline industry – has a number of trials on-going to push the boundaries of AI deeper into the aviation ecosystem to optimise operations. It is using AI with face recognition tools and biometrics in a pilot scheme with JetBlue at Boston’s Logan International Airport to board passengers without the need to show a boarding pass or a passport. Passengers are photographed in real time and, after connecting with the US Customs and Border Protection Agency to verify the image and identity, the system integrate with the airline’s departure control system, all in a matter of seconds.

SITA Lab is also developing specialist autonomous vehicles; last year it launched Leo, the baggage-handling robot. It is also investigating the synergy of AI and neural networks, which emulate the way the brain functions, to predict delays to airline operations up to 72 hours in advance. The model is trained with a wide range of airline data – everything from notices to airmen, to weather reports, to air traffic control information – then takes in live data to predict events.

SITA Lab chief technology officer, Jim Peters, expects to have some answers very soon about the data required to get a good prediction that will also then be actionable.

3D printing

The global aerospace robotics market is expected to increase from $2.15 billion in 2016 to $6.94 billion by 2023 with a compound annual growth rate of 18.2%, according to a new report by global market research company Stratistics MRC.

Also seeing growth is 3D printing. UK firm LPW Technologies is building the world’s first dedicated 3D printing facility focused on metals in Widnes, Merseyside.

CEO Dr Phil Carroll said: “We focus the materials, sensors and software to ensure the traceability of metal powder for 3D printing. This is essential for the aerospace industry.”

Watch our video interview with LPW Technologies CEO, Dr Phil Carroll.

Another UK firm, software developer Valuechain, has launched a new version of its production control software – DNA – for additive manufacturers.

The stringent controls within the aerospace sector mean that every batch of additive powder needs to be tracked throughout its entire lifecycle, through multiple blends, manufacturing builds and powder recovery, maintaining comprehensive chemical analysis at every stage.

According to Tom Dawes, Valuechain’s CEO, DNA integrates complex workflow and operations, such as build planning comprehensive inventory management and the critical chemical analysis of powder batches and test pieces.

The powder used by the printer to build up the part – layer by microscopic layer – is expensive and the 3D printer itself has a seven-figure price tag. The component still requires expensive finishing work after it emerges from the process.

Speaking at a Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) conference, Alan Epstein, Pratt & Whitney vice-president of technology and environment, said: “Luckily for additive people, everything in a jet engine is really expensive and so it can be attractive for the right part.”

One executive at GE/Snecma joint venture, CFM International, predicted that 3D printers will fabricate 25% of the parts in a jet engine within a “number of years”.

GE has already committed to build the cobalt-chrome fuel nozzle of the Leap-1 engine family using 3D printers inherited from the acquisition of Cincinnati-based Morris Technologies – a pioneer in the field of additive manufacturing.

Vivek Saxena, vice-president of aerospace operations and supply chain at US consulting firm ICF, said the value of 3D printed parts produced yearly by the aerospace industry over the next decade could double to $500 million, or leap by an order of magnitude to $2 billion.

“The uncertainties reflect the embryonic stage of additive manufacturing development,” he explained. ICF has analysed where additive manufacturing has already taken hold. Saxena told the RAeS conference that the process is slowly penetrating some of the industry’s most advanced programmes, including a wing spar on the Lockheed Martin F-35 and the wing leading edge produced by GKN Aerospace for the Dassault Falcon 5X business jet.

Regulating innovation

But regulators could still be the biggest challenge for the implementation of the revolutionary technologies. As a result, the quickest adoption of 3D printing will be in applications that face the least regulatory scrutiny, such as unmanned air vehicles and experimental aircraft, Saxena said.

Digital transformation not only affects the way a business is established and managed, it also influences the daily life of human beings by enhancing the flexibility of work and communication across company boundaries.

Innovations such as sensors embedded into aircraft equipment, parts and systems have increased our ability to collect valuable data.

This expanding data capture allows us to monitor performance and to oversee potential manufacturing process, as well as aircraft and sub-systems parts failures, throughout the aircraft’s operational lifecycle.

This data collection is based on fully connected digital devices and advanced analytics systems.

Getting connected

Beyond data-sharing progress, hardware innovations are enhancing the data distribution. For instance, at the Paris Airshow, Airbus announced its selection of Rockwell Collins for its flight operations and maintenance exchanger (FOMAX) program on the A320 family, which provides the infrastructure to send aircraft maintenance and performance data wirelessly to the ground as well as to mobile applications used by flight crews.

At the heart of the system is a small onboard connectivity unit that collects the performance data through a secure server router.

And connectivity as a whole is unlocking greater access to on-board data. Also at Paris, Honeywell demonstrated its connected aircraft testbed, a Boeing 757 that could send real-time data on aircraft performance to the ground as well as providing real-time crowd-gathered weather information to enable its pilots to avoid clear air turbulence and other unpredicted events.

From the start of the parts manufacturing process in the supply chain through the OEMs and on to the aircraft operations, the digital transformation is happening and companies need to be asking themselves if they are on the journey.

Share your expertise at FIA 2018

New for Farnborough International Airshow 2018, the FINN Sessions are a forum to share and discuss major topics and trends affecting the aerospace industry today and in the future. Visitors can expect to see thought-provoking keynotes, panel discussions and topical presentations delivered by thought leaders. The sessions are designed to educate, challenge perceptions and provide ideas for the future.

Set across two theatres and curated by FINN Editor-in-Chief , Alan Peaford, the seminars will split their focus: Hall 3 will spotlight innovation and the new technologies and Hall 4 will drill down into the major topics affecting the aerospace agenda today.

We are looking for speakers and content – could this be you? FIND OUT MORE.

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[This article first appeared in ADS Advance magazine]