Are you ready for Aerospace 4.0?

AMJune20Features - airborne1
AMJune20Features - airborne1

Airborne’s project engineer, Dr Jamie Snudden looks at the opportunities and barriers facing the aerospace industry in implementing digital technology and in getting to grips with Industry 4.0.


The effects of Industry 4.0 in many industries have already been seen, with improvements to existing value propositions emerging, or entirely new ones being developed. In aviation, digital technology has already fundamentally changed the airline industry landscape, with the downfall of Thomas Cook representing the death knell for the ‘travel agency’ business model, giving way to low cost airlines enabled by internet booking systems. The question of how Industry 4.0 technologies can be applied upstream in the mature, highly regulated aerospace manufacturing sector remains.

Commercial aviation is one of six broad segments in the aerospace market. After the dreadful downturn that commercial aviation is facing due to Covid-19, relative growth in other sectors may be seen, particularly in electric and unmanned aviation. Since these segments are less mature than commercial aviation, there is an opportunity for digital technology in manufacturing to be implemented and proven more rapidly. Some of the new players will want to establish a greenfield manufacturing site to have all under their control, others are seeking more to a smart and flexible supply chain that can respond quickly.

FEA and CFD has revolutionised aircraft design, yet the number of engineers required hasn’t reduced

Industry 4.0 will allow countries to become more self-sufficient and compete against countries that traditionally have cheaper labour rates. In this review however, ‘political’ is taken as the context within an organisation more than externally. Uptake of digital technology can make organisations far more efficient, for example using insight engines, such as Mindbreeze to sort data from the myriad of sources now available. These new systems may require changes to business processes or even organisational structure, which may be met with resistance from stakeholders.

There is an opportunity to decentralise manufacturing, wherein production is monitored and inspections are performed remotely using digital twins. Design and production engineering can be augmented with technology such as the Airborne On-Demand Manufacturing Portal that allows designers to order composite laminates on the fly.

Reaping the benefits

The chief economic benefit is drastic cost savings. This may be through minimisation of scrap levels and plant downtime due to maintenance through having ‘smart’ equipment that can detect when maintenance is required. On a business level, the deluge of data available would allow for more data driven decisions to be made, such as being able to determine the minimum efficient scale for their production facilities.

Manual approaches to composites manufacture have generally been used due to its complexity, making it more difficult to justify the high cost of automation. Digital technology has given rise to new value capture models in other industries, such as Software-as-a-Service, so is there an opportunity for Manufacturing-as-a-Service?

This change in value capture could also have an impact on supply chain management, including greater levels of collaboration and transparency, leading to more efficient production processes, Just-In-Time inventory management and understanding of the true cost of production. This ultimately may lead to a change from the traditional supply chain and vertically integrated organisations to more specific, agile organisations working within commercial ecosystems. The initiation of this future view will be challenging: the customer–supplier relationship will be fundamentally changed, and businesses will take significant convincing to allow the transparency this entails. It is possible; an example of a successful ecosystem from another industry is ARM technologies.

The impact of automation on employment has been debated since the inception of robotics. It is the challenge of employers to undertake Socially Responsible Automation. This is an opportunity to redefine jobs and reduce the number of repetitive, boring tasks that employees perform. Office based workers no longer need to commute to facilities every day, both reducing emissions and improving their work life balance without impacting on productivity. This has been seen in recent months from the necessity of remote working due to Covid-19. Also, by lowering costs through Industry 4.0, organisations will have less of an incentive to move production to countries where labour rates are lower.

Dr Jamie Snudden, project engineer at Airborne

Historically, technological improvements have led to more efficient, safer aircraft, and have led to the creation of more jobs. For example, FEA and CFD revolutionised aircraft design, and the number of engineers required did not reduce. The incorporation of AI and automation may follow the same course: the next generation of aircraft may be revolutionary, and more staff may be required to deliver them.

There are three levels to the technological challenge: why, where, and how. On the highest level, why businesses should invest in the technology must be justified. The next level to the challenge is where the technology should be applied. It could be business wide, or it could be on a manufacturing process level. Wherever it is applied, experts in the area where it is applied are needed to determine the requirements of the technology. Airborne, for example, has an in-depth understanding of composites manufacturing processes which allows determination of where and what Industry 4.0 technology can be applied.

How the technology is applied requires a different set of capabilities. These could include software development, robotics or data science. A manufacturing business may not have these capabilities, so the question arises of whether to build the capabilities in house or outsource. A driver in this decision would be the need to move quickly to retain or capture competitive advantage.

Environmental impact

A higher level of data from production lines, combined with digital twins that can predict when potential failures will occur has the potential to drastically reduce scrap rates. In the future, this could also be linked to FEA models of the parts being manufactured for dynamic inspection of defects to decide whether parts are acceptable or not. Processes could also be made more efficient using optimisation linking design and manufacture. For example, composites manufacturing has a variety of waste streams through production, culminating in buy-to-fly ratios of 6:1. Through dynamic ply nesting algorithms, waste from rejected plies, offcuts and roll ends can be reduced. Looking beyond individual companies, waste could also be reduced throughout the supply chain by enabling companies to detect where waste occurs, and companies could optimise to reduce waste further downstream or upstream.

Particularly important in the aerospace industry is certification. The consequence of failure of structures on aircraft is markedly higher than that of other industries, and so regulation and certification must be rigorous. The challenge to aerospace manufacturing is twofold. Firstly, the designers and the certifying bodies must be satisfied that digital technology can consistently produce acceptable parts and be able to detect when parts are not acceptable. Secondly, new automated manufacturing techniques must not produce new residual stresses that may not have been seen before. These risks can be mitigated with simulation, but simulation techniques must be validated.

Airborne’s aim is to enable digital technology in composites to reap these benefits. In aerospace, composites are becoming more widespread. One challenge is to reach the rate required for cash cows such as the A320, but also allow flexibility to manufacture multiple components. In other market segments, the use of composites is already widespread, such as helicopter blades. The challenge in these cases is to help to reduce costs of manufacture and ultimately improve the sustainability of composites production.



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