Following the pandemic, the UK aerospace industry has been presented with an opportunity to build back better. Automation has the potential to reduce human error and achieve more consistent quality for aerospace manufacturing processes, but it is critical that staff are equipped to operate new technology.
The past year has been particularly tough for the aerospace industry, with tourism virtually non-existent and the necessity for social distancing measures rendering the operation of many vital processes difficult for manufacturers. Simultaneously, this has highlighted many of the challenges of relying solely on manual labour within these processes, begging the question – is there a better way forward?
In the aerospace industry, the margin for error in design and construction is narrow, perhaps even more so than other industries such as the likes of the automotive. With the consequences of a potential mechanical failure so severe, it is critical that manufacturers take every precaution necessary to eradicate this possibility. By automating certain manual processes, contractors can achieve industry highs for consistency and quality, while ensuring that risk remains at a minimum. Considering this, it is reasonable to believe that embracing automation is the next step for aerospace manufacturers.
Automation and people
One of the primary concerns around the implementation of automation – not just in the aerospace industry – is what it means for those working in the sector. However, we have already seen in other industries that when properly integrated, automation presents an opportunity for workers to enhance their skillset. Developments in cobot (collaborative robot) technology are opening up new opportunities for a fusion workplace of humans and robots working side by side.
But for this to be possible, it is critical that businesses invest in their employees and offer sufficient upskilling training in order for them to perform new roles effectively. This extends to new hires as well as older staff, as manufacturers need to ensure that those entering the industry are robotics-literate enough to work with automation. An effective way to do this is via partnerships with universities and other educational institutes. Fanuc, for example, recently partnered with Cranfield University’s Aerospace Integration Research Centre (AIRC), allowing students to work with Fanuc’s collaborative robots hands on and develop the skills they need to utilise such technology before they enter the workplace.
The best way to address industry-specific challenges is for manufacturers to work closely with automation suppliers like Fanuc to develop new solutions. This method allows manufacturers to identify the optimum solution, as well as take full advantage of the Fanuc ‘Toolbox’. This is a host of intelligent features offered on their machines, including 2 and 3D integrated vision systems, CNC solutions and software supporting the safe use of all Fanuc products.
For example, when a large aerospace company approached Fanuc in 2019, the two worked together to develop a robot that achieves industry highs for accuracy and performance. Through extended co-operation, it is possible that the aerospace industry will reach the stage where standardised automation solutions exist that meet the challenges of manufacturing processes. This will ultimately raise standards and improve the sector as a whole.
Automation has the potential to significantly improve aerospace manufacturing, provided it is implemented in the right way. It is vital that manufacturers take a number of steps to allow it to flourish. Primarily, the industry’s workforce must be equipped to utilise new technology effectively, and this is something that must start at graduate/apprentice level, running right through to those already experienced in the sector.
Moreover, with the automation of aerospace solutions in its relative infancy in the UK, collaboration between manufacturers and automation suppliers will be key to mutual learning, to ensure that effective industry solutions are developed.