Quality and reliability are important qualities in most industries, but in aerospace they are literally matters of life and death.
Widely regarded by outsiders as one of the world's most high-tech sectors, the aerospace supply chain is in fact a high-value, high-quality industry. At one time, it was relatively low-volume too, and that mindset continues to pervade the back-office processes of many firms in the sector, meaning that far from being high tech, many are dependent on paper trails, people and a wide range of IT systems.
If an airline wants to know about the configuration possibilities of a cabin component, the paper trail guaranteeing traceability means they can contact the manufacturer of that part directly, bypassing the company that actually supplied the aircraft. The system has worked, albeit to a limited extent, up to now, because of the efforts of employees and managers at these manufacturing firms. Understanding the importance of traceability and dependability, these professionals have been prepared to search through paper archives and a wide variety of different computer systems to find part numbers and give detailed answers in person.
Of course, it can take days to answer customer queries when it should be immediate, and for a number of reasons that approach is increasingly putting otherwise excellent manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage.
The growing demands of regulatory compliance and the ever higher quality standards being demanded of the aviation industry mean documentation and the provenance of individual parts are now a crucial aspect of working in the aerospace supply chain. At the same time, the industry is also facing up to the problem of counterfeiting, as lengthening supply chains, the complex contractual arrangements of aircraft financing and the sheer size of fleets have de-personalised the sector and provided a fertile ground for unscrupulous elements to exploit. This at a time when the industry is rapidly entering emerging high-growth markets that are harder to regulate to global standards.
The increased use of 3D printing in component manufacture across many industries is set to make the issue even more acute, as not only does this technique lend itself to use by counterfeiting outfits, it also looks set to spawn a rise in legitimate competition for many aerospace parts manufacturers, as the sheer adaptability of the technology allows those that master it to challenge for lucrative work across many sectors.
Component manufacturers must therefore not only ensure excellence, but work closely with customers to provide a clear audit trail. While this helps to block counterfeit goods from the market, it can also be turned into a competitive advantage to customers keen to offer and advertise their traceability, brand dependability and regulatory compliance. For a parts manufacturer in a competitive and relatively homogeneous niche, it can therefore provide a key distinguishing characteristic and selling point for the brand, ensuring they are not overlooked in favour of cost-cutting rivals and high-tech new entrants.
The data to back up this system of traceability already exists: It is in manufacturers' records and the paper trail that follows the component along the supply chain, with information and authentication added at each link in order to prove regulatory compliance. However, that is inefficient both in terms of time and money, and also in terms of being fail-safe. The key is for companies to mine that information, reducing the amount of manual intervention needed and ensuring everything is in digital form.
Given the complexity of the industry as a whole and the level of detail needed – including proof of shipment, import arrangements, customs, quality compliance and testing throughout a product's lifespan – the needs of aerospace parts manufacturers go far beyond a simple computerised database, as original documentation in many formats must be securely held and easily accessed. Therefore, manufacturers who are at once keen to elevate their workflow processes to a higher level of productivity and gain the valuable benefit in terms of differentiation and improved compliance that a fully traceable system provides, must develop a technology strategy that unites all levels of their operation and allows managers and perhaps even privileged partners to scrutinise them.
Such a strategy can be implemented relatively easily by harnessing enterprise content management (ECM) technologies. These systems, which can be implemented across any business, not only digitise all documentation but allow it to be viewed from a single source, whatever the original format of documents, and provide a fluid link between existing systems and the tasks being undertaken. Being digital and potentially cloud-based, access can be made available to a variety of devices, with security levels tailored to the needs of the company and industry: In the case of aerospace manufacturing, these are likely to be high.
Increasingly, ECM is being adopted across many industry sectors to build more complex enterprise information platforms, which also incorporate elements of workflow management. Often these are adapted to facilitate a range of innovative uses of digital communications and data flow within a company. Already, manufacturers have used such platforms to help achieve a seamless and secure supply chain, while improving efficiency and facilitating faster, more accurate feedback.
As the aerospace industry continues to grow – and likely hosts many new entrants at all levels – so does the importance of communication between supply chain partners and individual customers. At the same time, the sheer pace of development means an ever faster and more sophisticated R&D and feedback cycle, which must be achieved securely and seamlessly.
Therefore, any component manufacturer that is currently finding it difficult and time consuming to prove provenance, access relevant documentation or provide rapid, specific and accurate feedback up and down the chain is going to find business increasingly challenging and costly in the future.
Legitimate new entrants to the aerospace market, using technology such as 3D printing – as well as leaner, digitally driven manufacturing processes – will likely already be using enterprise information platforms, but they lack the brand recognition, reputation and relationships earned by incumbents over many years, often since the industry was a largely build-to-order affair. There is still time to capitalise on the underlying strength of those assets, by creating a digital ECM-backed feedback service. However, those that delay risk losing business to competitors, legitimate or otherwise: the investment has been made in people and technology – now is the time to bring it all together.
Tim Rushent is account manager, industry and commerce, with Hyland, creator of OnBase.