Matt Medley, IFS’s global industry director of A&D, examines the key role of Manufacturing Execution Systems and how they are helping drive ‘Aerospace & Defence 4.0’.
While Industry 4.0 has been a mainstay of most manufacturing processes for some time, ‘Aerospace & Defence 4.0’ has matured a little more slowly. A&D 4.0 is now seriously up and running - and that means the spotlight is on the vital role Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) must play to get critical data off the shopfloor and into the systems that will unlock better production execution, quality control, and Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). It also makes the world of Defence Contract Management that much simpler with fully integrated and automated workflows and it helps solve an array of human capital issues.
In 2020, IFS conducted research into the A&D 4.0 maturity curve with surprising results. The polling results from a webinar attended by A&D manufacturers found that only 12% of nearly 150 attendees had not made Industry 4.0 an enterprise-wide priority, while the majority of the remaining manufacturing companies (68%) were still researching how these technological advances could help achieve their digital transformation goals.
The evolution of A&D 4.0
While the interest in 4.0 technologies was clear to see, the A&D market was still at the beginning of the adoption journey. Bridging the chasm from interest to adoption was going to rely on positive results from early adopters prospering from deploying the latest solutions.
Things have now taken off. The widespread emergence of Industry 4.0 technologies is here and now and their implementation on flexible enterprise software platforms is helping unlock previously inaccessible financial, operational, and security benefits for A&D manufacturers.
Enlisting powerful MES is now pre-requisite to positively unlocking these benefits and has a hugely positive impact on production rate and execution, quality control, and OEE. MES transforms inventory, production, and quality control activities to deliver efficient and compliant work execution by digitally tracking and documenting the end-to-end manufacturing process. These systems digitally capture each step of the transformation of raw materials into finished goods for documenting compliance, data-driven continuous improvement, and supply chain transparency in real-time.
MES is a key part of the vertical integration of manufacturing by ensuring data is accessible from the shopfloor to the top floor, continuously fed to real-time dashboards and enabling control at every level of the manufacturing organisation. From the supervisor on the shopfloor, to the director of operations, to the quality systems, and even having that information rolled up to the C-Suite, everyone in the chain has real-time information for actionable intelligence.
The devil is in the details for A&D manufacturers, which MES data must be able to provide. Unlike traditional discrete manufacturing of parts and assemblies, A&D equipment is held to a higher standard of accuracy and safety. Engineering tolerances for aircraft can be down to the thousandths of an inch.
A&D MES support must have the ability to add additional 0.9 decimal places to manufacturing quality control. It’s this level of quality and precision that MES in A&D manufacturing are held to, and these incredibly stringent tolerances are built in for safety and mission effectiveness. Failure of either of these elements has huge consequences in A&D wherever the equipment is operating, potentially causing catastrophic equipment failure to compromise mission success and even put the warfighter’s life at risk.
Having MES accessible as part of a core manufacturing solution offers significant benefits. Separate MES is not conducive to providing the level of vertical reporting required in a modern manufacturing environment, nor is MES always able to provide the additional level of granularity and specificity necessary to operate in the A&D manufacturing sector. However, working with complex point solutions with heavily customised integrations to solve these issues and move information across an A&D manufacturing organisation is time-consuming to manage and risks soloing out data that would otherwise be critical to the overall production execution, quality control, and KPIs like OEE.
An all-in-one MES
It’s the MES that tracks the daily operation level of your shopfloor. Software with built-in MES functionality provides the essential digital backbone between the proliferation of smart devices and machines and core manufacturing planning software, seamlessly integrating this technology with the higher-level software used to plan production. In this way, open interoperable MES solutions enable full traceability of parts, components, and projects - from design right through to production and engineering.
As a pre-requisite, MES functionality should enable CAD integration, robust, real-time data collection, and more sophisticated integrations through IoT and RESTful APIs as just a few examples. It also needs to support dispatching and shopfloor operation, improved production management and tracking, and quality management processes. Then there’s the need to enable machine monitoring and performance and KPI reporting.
Critically, instead of having to get a different MES and then tie it all together with other manufacturing solutions, MES should be part of one software package that's not just integrated, but all one fully-connected piece ‘out-of-the-box’.
The next level of automation
Once A&D manufacturers have established this connected base point in a single system, they can then exploit new and emerging automation functionalities that unlock further intelligent insights and accelerate automation efforts within their business practices. From an MES perspective, this can include streamlining to improve product quality control and performance and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and historical data-driven work schedules and job completion time to improve accuracy for technical productivity. Also, by combining IoT data with AI/machine learning, manufacturers can improve performance based on an array of historical observations and transactions.
Within Defence Contract Management this streamlined approach between different operational areas of the business means A&D manufacturers can get automated reports done faster and more accurately - to ultimately receive faster payment.
With MES, we aren’t talking about advanced robotics that are expensive, timely to implement, and require extensive change management within the A&D manufacturing organisation. It’s changes like improved MES that optimise processes that have started to take hold a lot faster. A&D manufacturing, like many other industries, is experiencing a skilled labour shortage. According to Future Aviation Aerospace Workforce, the manufacturing industry needs 3.5 million workers just for A&D by 2026. This is where a connected MES/ERP solution brings human capital benefits.
By improving processes with better feedback on MES data, instead of having to cut staff, A&D manufacturers can upskill employees for higher level work while the factory is automated. It’s a win-win from a change management perspective, as it's easier to sell a process improvement rather than introducing an army of robots onto the factory floor.
MES - a key stepping-stone
Getting MES right is a critical component of A&D 4.0 - particularly given the unique requirements of the A&D industry. MES has been around for some time, but its capabilities have had to grow and evolve. It has had to keep up with new and emerging trends just like the rest of the A&D manufacturing software stack does, and that includes connection to lower-level equipment and the ability to export data for analysis and decision making.
For these very reasons, for MES to drive improved production execution, quality control, and OKPI management, it cannot sit in isolation from other manufacturing systems. MES must be an embedded part of a wider solution to enable manufacturers to unlock the benefits of A&D 4.0 and vertical integration of manufacturing.