Manufacturing: Time To Go Digital [VIDEO]

Thomas Pohl

According to Boeing, a total of 38,050 new passenger aircraft and freighters will be delivered during the next 20 years. This growing demand for new planes leads directly to the continuing drive to reduce production time and costs while maintaining consistent quality.

To face this challenge, the Aerospace and Defense industry must change its manufacturing processes so that the latest technology trends, like Big Data analysis, quality prediction, and the Internet of Things, enable an end-to-end digital approach from concept to assembly. The ongoing process of digital transformation is the key element in doing this, as reflected by the fact that 53% of the aerospace companies expect digital transformation to help reduce costly manufacturing delays.

But what exactly needs to be done? What are the benefits? And most importantly, what role do human beings play in this context?

The digital strategy of every company should include the business process of manufacturing as one of the key pillars. Smarter, more connected assembly lines must be introduced as a fundamental change in the Aerospace and Defense industry.

According to Dennis Little, vice president of production of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Lockheed Martin is endeavoring to change its manufacturing process into a digital one. To see what a smart and connected assembly line looks like, have a look at the following video, which presents the F-35 Lightning II Factory at Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas:

The right information at the right time on the right device

Focusing on the role of human beings, a guiding principle of a smarter factory means having the right information at the right time on the right device. In this context, human beings on the shop floors are supported by 3D asset visualization, virtual coaching, and wearable devices such as tablets or smart glasses, resulting in greater safety and fewer errors. By implementing features like finger- or even eye-tracking, voice control, and projection of work-instruction images in 3D, decision quality, profitability, and productivity will improve.

3D Printing act as a game changer

Considering the manufacturing processes, 3D printing can be a game changer, especially in reducing production costs  and improving quality and throughput. Without 3D printing, prototypes must either be hand-crafted or deferred until a tool is produced. A printed part is available in any shape within hours. In addition to offering faster, more flexible demand fulfillment and shortening the development cycle, 3D printing processes (so-called Additive Layer Manufacturing, or ALM) produce only 5% waste material at Airbus. And Airbus should know it, because its A350 XWB aircraft contains more than 1000 3D printed parts.

Lockheed Martin, as a pioneer in ALM, proclaims significant advantages in manufacturing by using 3D printing, shown here:

Lockheed Martin_3D Printer

Proclaimed benefits of 3D Printing by Lockheed Martin (1)

Computer-suited personal and robots work side by side

The factory of the future is similarly characterized by a production line where computer-suited personal and robots work side by side. While an automotive plant manufactures 1000 cars a day, Airbus is currently able to produce 1,5 planes per day. With regard to the tasks, which last several hours, the programming of robots is extremely complex. At present smart robots do repetitive tasks like automated drilling, while for the difficult tasks greater skills of human beings are required.

two-arm-robot_2014-07-08-18-11-23

Humans and two-armed robots work side by side at Airbus Puero Real plant in Cádiz (2)

However, according to Airbus, the next generation of humanoid robots will be able to imitate things they have seen. It remains to be seen which role human beings will assume. In my opinion, the Aerospace and Defense industry will continue to depend heavily on human beings, especially because of high security standardization concerning quality checks and inspections. Consequently, the future factory must be human-centered and obviously digital, enhancing workers’ performance, as Dennis Little stated.

I am interested in your opinions and experiences. To what extent will robots replace humans on the shop floors of the 21st century? Which other aspects will be influenced by digital transformation in manufacturing? Please send me your comments or follow @AeroMatha, the original author of this blog.

This blog appeared here for the first time.


Thomas Pohl

About Thomas Pohl

Thomas Pohl is a Senior Director Marketing at SAP. He helps global high tech and aerospace companies to simplify their business by taking innovative software solutions to market.

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3D Printing