Ian Parker talks to BAE Systems’ director of technology programmes in the air sector, Professor Andy Schofield about the Factory of the Future and its application to Tempest.
For more than a century, designing and making great fighter planes has been a UK talent and has surely been an element in the survival of the nation. Britain has just celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, in which the Spitfire and Hurricane, and the brave pilots who flew them, saved the nation. A lesser known but equally great fighter, the Hawker Tempest, fought from mid-1944 and that name lives again in the UK’s latest fighter project.
The aim of Tempest is to create a Future Combat Air System to replace the capabilities of the Typhoon from about 2035 for the RAF and possibly other air forces. Advanced digital technologies are being used to help design and test concepts but the digital approach will also revolutionise manufacture. BAE Systems is pushing ahead with the Factory of the Future concept, which will reduce costs and speed up production.
“We’ve taken the challenge that Tempest gives us and we’ve translated it into the manufacturing challenge,” begins Prof Andy Schofield, BAE Systems’ director of technology programmes in the air sector. “We have to increase productivity. We have to address the time it takes to get products to market. It’s about eliminating non-value-added activities.”
A wind of change
Typhoon was BAE Systems’ first digitally designed aircraft and the first that was predominantly composite and then the F-35 gave the company challenges on high-accuracy and affordable composite and titanium structures. BAE Systems had to perform demonstrations that proved the technologies and Tempest is no different.
“We’ve set out the need for the Factory of the Future. We have a number of technology themes which range from digital manufacturing to intelligent automation to competitive tooling and fixturing and additive manufacture. If you think about our traditional ways of assembling aircraft, we have large assembly fixtures and tooling with high non-recurring costs, which we need to reduce. We have to achieve cost and lead time reductions. Our mantra is to do things 50% faster and 50% cheaper.”
In aerospace, metallic materials undergo processing, such as, forming, joining, welding, hole drilling, etc. and plane makers need to develop more high-tech methods. Aluminium alloys will continue to have a big part to play. The historical ways of forming and joining aluminium are time-consuming and designs have moved more towards composites, but with The Welding Institute (TWI) and other partners, BAE Systems is looking at advanced methods for forming aluminium, rather than the traditional rolling, milling, stretching and fastening and then perhaps hand correction.
“We’re looking for novel methods of forming shapes, such as laser shock forming and how we can join the materials without drilling holes and using fasteners. Using advanced methods such as friction stir welding is critical. We’ve done some ground breaking work on how we can form and join aluminium structures without fasteners, and how you can do it with a level of protective treatments which avoids the need to strip down the components, deburr the holes, put in the treatments and reassemble. That’s where much of the non-value-added activity is.
“In composites we have to look at more smart structures with embedded sensors and energy storage. And we have to look at how we test and verify during production rather than leaving it until the end and then finding problems. We have to build in self-monitoring and self-correction.”
BAE Systems has technology roadmaps which will really start to push the boundaries in these areas. But the company can’t do these things on its own and for a number of years it has collaborated widely with academia, with research technology organisations, with SMEs, and with large blue-chip companies. The Factory of the Future will pull together all these technologies in collaboration with 50-plus partners from companies such as Siemens down to SMEs that have a dozen or so employees.
It also includes research centres such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, TWI and academia including the Universities of Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Cranfield, Birmingham and Strathclyde. BAE Systems is influencing the research agendas in academic areas. With 3D printing companies such as Renishaw, BAE Systems has a strategic partnership in place and is pushing the boundaries of additive manufacture with them.
“Industry 4.0 is right at the heart of what we do. It’s all about how we gain advantage from the Internet of Things and how we generate data and, more importantly, how we use it. This is a key national agenda of how we develop these technologies.
“The Engineer of the Future is being developed, as we move away from traditional aircraft engineering and manufacturing skills, to critical future skills, such as automation, digital, mixed reality and additive manufacturing. We’re developing the skilled workforce in conjunction with our supply chain. We have to take the supply chain on the journey with us.”
Building on the work BAE Systems did with Nottingham University a few years ago, the company is looking at how it can assemble an aircraft structure without fixtures, without large infra-structure around the assembly, using robotics and, more importantly, humans and robots working together.
“We’re used to seeing robots working in caged areas, but we’ll be looking at the health and safety of robots and humans working in the same environment,” concludes Schofield. “We’re also taking things out of the Factory of the Future, which is essentially a testbed, and putting them into our current projects. We’re also sharing the development of capabilities across a wider network.
“A few weeks ago, we were awarded - as a consortium within the UK - government funding for the industrial development of 5G. This is paramount for the development of industrial digitisation technologies which are critical for smart factories and digitally connected supply chains.”