Aerospace companies operate highly complex supply chains, stretching globally to meet manufacturing, assembly, integration, test and MRO needs. Mission critical components must perform on demand under rigorous conditions and with high safety margins. Managing these complex, multi-tiered, international supply chains puts great demands on manufacturers from primes to raw material suppliers.
These firms are also having to meet an increasing need for more aircraft as middle classes in developing nations grow and global trade expands, despite climate change and sustainability pressures. Those new aircraft will have to meet more stringent environmental regulations, and cost and reliability requirements from operators will drive shorter product lifecycles as operating older aircraft becomes unviable. That will create demand for replacements with newer designs and major mid-life upgrades. In addition, the major overhaul of defence spending proposed by the UK government will further ramp up pressure on those manufacturers with a wide defence and aerospace product portfolio.
PA Consulting recently carried out a survey of over 100 manufacturing leaders which showed how aerospace firms are turning towards smart supply chains and digital solutions to help them develop these innovative products faster, cheaper and better. They are using a number of key aspects of digitally enabled smart manufacturing supply chains including digital twins, additive manufacturing and smart factories.
The digital twin
The digital twin concept enables manufacturers to know exactly what’s going on within product, process, systems and supply chain in real time in comparison with a modelled expectation. This helps them improve designs, plans, production systems and maintenance. Not to be confused with a simulation, a digital twin employs data drawn from physical entities and analyses it against expected behaviour in a model (which can be derived from simulation) to detect anomalies and propose rectification. The value increases when a greater number of entities are being monitored because the dataset grows faster, and common issues can be diagnosed and dealt with rapidly.
This is proven technology, for the best part of two decades aero engine manufacturers have been developing digital twins of their powerplants to deliver cost-effective long-term service agreements to airlines and increase availability and predictable operations. GE developed its own digital support platform Predix, which it markets to others, while Rolls-Royce worked with partners to adopt a similar approach.
PA recently supported a client with optimising its steam generation and distribution plant by building and operating a digital twin demonstrator to show its potential value which identified up to £8m of production savings per year, a 100,000-tonne reduction in CO2 emissions and a 25% improvement in availability.
It all adds up
Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) is another digital option than can bring relative speed and flexibility to manufacturing. Its capability to directly create the physical from the digital without the need for specific tooling and fixturing avoids long lead times and more complex geometries can be achieved than through conventional processes. However, the machines require significant capital investment and the technology is advancing so quickly that many companies are opting to buy capacity on others’ machines rather than invest in their own.
The range of materials that can be used in ALM is somewhat restricted but is growing. Material properties can also be harder to verify than for a forging or casting, but again, this is improving. A further challenge is that production times per part can be long which has resulted in the process being used mainly in areas such as fast make tooling, R&D prototyping and some legacy and low volume component production. However, companies are working hard to develop supply chains for serial production ALM parts and are studying its application for refurbishment of components such as aerofoils, combined with 3D digital scanning, adaptive machining and automation technologies.
Another area of focus is the factory. Aerospace engineering and operations generate a vast amount of data, but it is commonly held in separate systems – S&OP, CAD, CAM, PLM, ERP and companies rarely extract major value from it. By digitising, connecting and allowing better access to this data, business intelligence and analytics can deliver high-value insights to inform manufacturing operations and support automation of both knowledge and manual work.
This capability draws on a whole range of technologies including sensors, edge computing, horizontal and vertical systems integration, advanced automation and cloud computing to enable analytics, AI and machine learning to extract more value from data.
This technology is beginning to be used in practice with Airbus recently inaugurating its state-of-the-art fuselage structure assembly line for A320 aircraft which uses smart tools for real-time collaboration in manufacturing. It manufactures longer sections for the A321LR, and uses 20 robots, new logistics concepts, autonomous guided vehicles, as well as a digital data acquisition system.
A clear vision
The challenge remains in making the use of this technology a reality, with 79% of the leaders PA surveyed saying they do not have the right mix of skills and capabilities to deliver a digital transformation.
What is needed is a clear vision that helps all parts of the organisation understand the role they can play and how the full range of new approaches can be aligned. That should be underpinned by a long-term view of benefits across the end-to-end smart supply chain and a leadership willing to sponsor pilots and demonstrations to prove capability, learn how to improve, recognise success and gain acceptance.
Speed is essential and can be achieved by identifying, evaluating, piloting and scaling available solutions and linking their use to value for the business. Firms including Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, and many tier 1 and 2 suppliers are now adopting this approach and collaborating with technology providers to explore and refine a range of smart supply chain options.
Finally, there needs to be a relentless focus on implementing change. Companies often fail at this stage as they try to deploy new digital technologies with outdated structures, legacy systems and old processes rather than fully embracing new ways of doing things.
Aerospace manufacturing has always been a complex business and the challenges are only going to grow, but those that embrace digital options and make their supply chains smarter will be best placed to succeed and seize the opportunities ahead.
Guy Norris is an aerospace expert, and Alexander Pitharoulis is a manufacturing expert, both at PA Consulting