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Tracking different parameters helps create a digital twin of the process
Tracking different parameters helps create a digital twin of the process

Ubisense transforms physical spaces into smart spaces, bringing manufacturers proven gains in quality, cost, and productivity. Here, the company explains how real-time location systems are changing the face of aerospace manufacturing.

The aerospace industry has always been at the cutting edge of technology, but recently this advanced industry has been under intense pressure. Because of the global pandemic and its subsequent effects on supply chains and manufacturing, many aircraft manufacturers are operating under financial duress. Typical errors in production processes, supply chain bottlenecks, and increased expenses are having devastating effects on previously healthy businesses and their employees. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

In the two to three years prior to the pandemic, IoT (Internet of Things) devices had begun to proliferate in the industrial sector. The notion of Smart Factories and an Industry 4.0 revolution began to gather steam, and this trend is still very much alive.

One of the key innovations to come out of this ‘smart’ industrial culture was the rise of real-time location systems (RTLS). It is RTLS which is set to help all aircraft manufacturers find ‘optimum efficiency’ within their production cycles. It is the future intelligent manufacturing.

While technically RTLS has existed since the 1970s and the NASA lunar missions, the bulk of the progress has been made in the last twenty years. The aim of these systems is to track the precise location of all key assets within a production process, including the items being produced, their constituent parts, the tools being used, the vehicles involved, the machines, and even the people. By tracking all these things at any given time, one can create a digital twin of the process, which opens up a range of cost saving possibilities.

How does it work?

RTLS is composed of three main parts: tags, sensors, and software. Tags are attached to all key assets and can vary in size, durability, range, and battery life. Sensors are placed strategically around a site where they track the location of tags, sending and receiving thousands of data points per minute. The software is what takes these data points and processes it, visualising it either on a cloud-based application or an on-site server.

By accessing thousands of data points in real-time, aircraft manufacturers gain an overview of their whole process and start driving valuable, cost saving insights.

Figure 1: The image on the left shows a more accurate read of the actual path taken
Figure 1: The image on the left shows a more accurate read of the actual path taken

Once a digital twin of an aircraft manufacturing process is created, the possibilities are almost endless. Managers will be able to identify bottlenecks in production and prevent errors from occurring using predictive analytics functionalities. Knowing ahead of time what parts, tools, supplies and personnel may be held up can allow the production model to adjust to a new, more efficient model automatically. Parts and personal can be automatically reassigned, and key stakeholders can be notified of changes to the production schedule. But this is just the start.

One of the most useful attributes of any RTLS is its ability to locate missing assets. Whether it be tools, equipment, or people, if assets are in the wrong place at the wrong time, alerts can be triggered. It is also possible to remotely inspect areas via the RTLS, and many manufacturing environments make use of intelligent imaging to automatically locate issues with machinery. Runway and ramp sweepers can also be tagged, ensuring that they are in place as and when needed, ensuring that they spend the maximum amount of time possible clearing away debris.

Safety in numbers

Worker safety has become a key element of RTLS systems, and there are many ways in which an RTLS can be useful in an aerospace environment. Employees can be alerted if they are standing too close to hazardous machinery or equipment. Employees can have their access restricted from certain locations within the manufacturing site. They can even be alerted for any new social distancing measures, and tracked if they come into contact with someone who tests positive for Flu or Covid-19. In the event of serious accidents or fires, employees’ locations can be tracked via small tags the size of key fobs. Their safety gear (helmets and high visibility jackets) can also be tagged, preventing them from passing certain checkpoints without the required gear.

Ubisense transforms physical spaces into smart spaces
Ubisense transforms physical spaces into smart spaces

The above scenarios describe RTLS as it should ideally work, but many RTLS companies offer systems without the required accuracy or reliability to function at an elite level. There are differences in the technology used (the simplest RTLS systems just use RFID tags and manual scanners), and the quality of the technology.

Many simple industrial environments can get by using Bluetooth sensor systems for example, which can be inaccurate and suffer from interference from other radio signals. Most indoor industrial environments are better served by UWB (Ultra-wideband) tags and sensors, which not only provide more reliable and accurate data but can in some cases locate objects in three dimensions. Some companies can also bring together different location tracking technology seamlessly, covering both indoor and outdoor environments. For example, the Ubisense RTLS offers both UWB and RTK GPS tracking within the same sensor units, allowing for a broader, seamless interface between indoor and outdoor activity.

While UWB can offer more accurate tracking than Bluetooth of Wi-Fi systems, different UWB providers will have varying tracking success. In figure 1 you can see an image of the difference between two UWB systems. The one on the left clearly shows a more accurate read of the actual path taken (light blue). The difference displayed here will affect the range of possible functionalities of the RTLS. Remember, it is no use warning someone they’re too close to an engine when they’re already inside it!

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