Implementing an Aerospace Factory of the Future

Companies across a wide range of segments are introducing Industry 4.0 (i4.0) technology at a rapid pace, turning the next-generation vision of manufacturing — the Factory of the Future — into reality. Many of the advances in this transformation have been in highly automated industries such as vehicle manufacturing. Conversely, the aerospace industry, with its staged approach to assembling aircraft, satellites and other products, has only begun to investigate how i4.0 technologies can improve operations, throughput, quality control and cost challenges.

Aerospace Manufacturing Challenges…and Opportunities

Whether constructing satellites, drones or commercial aircraft, aerospace production requires a combination of labor-intensive manufacturing and precision assembly of ultra-complex products. Compared to other industries, this workflow is unique. Airplane wings, for example, may require thousands of holes to be drilled with high accuracy in complex, fragile surfaces. In the automotive industry, it is estimated that close to 90% of drilling is automated, with only about 10% of drilling operations being done manually. In the aerospace industry, the situation is almost the exact opposite. And, since aircraft are produced under exceptional regulatory oversight for safety and quality control purposes, there needs to be detailed documentation of every part and every action as material flows through final installation, quality check and completion.

The i4.0 technologies that are the foundation for building the Factory of the Future are ideal for solving many of these challenges. More aerospace manufacturers and their suppliers are interested in making the journey to implement Factory of the Future concepts. However, many are unsure where to begin.

Setting a Foundation for the Factory of the Future

In the Factory of the Future, intelligent i4.0 technology connects everything, from individual machine components and workstations with embedded sensors, up through machine-level and plant-level communications architectures to a cloud-based solution. Sophisticated software collects, transfers and processes data in ways to provide both production transparency and actionable answers to questions about production bottlenecks, inefficient workflows and equipment in need of preventive maintenance.

Smart workstations can be programmed to read RFID tags for each part being assembled while adapting the workplace to each employee’s skills and preferences.

With many major aerospace manufacturers having eight to ten years’ worth of orders in their books, they need to keep their operations running without major disruption while still solving the demands for tomorrow. For aerospace manufacturers seeking to implement this kind of technology now, without sacrificing productivity or quality control, there are several key steps to consider when identifying where and how to begin:

  1. Lean principles: i4.0 technology works best when the company adopting it has well-established lean principles and processes.

  2. Technology integration: Upgrading and integrating smart tools and other types of sensors into assembly systems are a simple, yet highly effective way to begin transformation.

  3. Data collection: With smart tools and sensors generating data, it’s important to address questions like what data do you need to achieve real change, where should the data go, and what do you do with it?

  4. Data analysis and visualization: Having data alone is only half the challenge — analyzing and visualizing that information in real time is just as crucial.

  5. Machine learning: As connected i4.0 devices grow smarter, they can share more, bringing more flexibility and improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) to the factory floor.

  6. Artificial intelligence: The ultimate achievement for the i4.0-enabled aerospace production space is when machines can predict their own futures and prevent downtime.

Starting with Lean Principles

An IoT gateway makes real-time monitoring of process data, such as temperature, pressure, vibration, power consumption or other parameters, easy to set up without intervening in the automation logic. Data can be centralized at the plant level with local machine state monitoring systems and eventually scale up to using the gateway to connect all production locations through the cloud and utilizing cloud-based analytical tools.

To begin the journey to the Factory of the Future, aerospace companies should have a multiyear vision for transforming their operations. Then, based on that vision, the company can build a roadmap that identifies the “low-hanging fruit” — the initial, most glaring issues that lead to waste, inefficiencies or errors.

Effective use of i4.0 technology depends on an established, lean manufacturing culture. Lean emphasizes eliminating waste, implementing continuous improvement processes (CIP) and improving the flow of material, people and information. For example, smart workstations have been shown to reduce errors in industries using manual assembly. This is a relatively cost-effective investment to begin with and can be guided by lean principles targeting waste and error in manual assembly steps.

Companies that have strong lean programs will be able to implement effective CIP programs that empower everyone across a production workflow to identify areas where existing processes or systems are causing problems and propose ways to fix them.

Technology Integration: Adding Sensors and Smart Assembly Tools

Digital lean tools, such as the Rexroth ActiveCockpit, make it easier to compile and share production information at the beginning of every shift to review the previous day’s data and plan out the day accordingly.

One of the unique anomalies of aerospace manufacturing is how it transitions from automated to manual production. Many initial components are fabricated in highly automated machining or manufacturing systems. These systems are already i4.0-enabled with integrated sensors and PLCs that capture and package production data for analysis and quality control.

As subassemblies are created and installed, final assembly and integration is much more manual. For example, the final tightening of thousands of fasteners on an aircraft is often done with pneumatic and manual wrenches that are purely mechanical, with manual inspections and written verification on paper documents. However, another initial step to make aerospace manufacturing more i4.0-ready is integrating smart, programmable tightening tools that document the amount of torque applied for each fastener and that can automatically reconfigure torque and rotation settings based on the assigned task (and log that data).

There are also i4.0 assembly workstations that mix automated and manual systems using technology to better connect and support operators, machinery and parts to make flexible production easier to achieve. For example, at these workstations, each worker has a name tag with an embedded Radio Frequency Identification Tag (RFID). The workstations are programmed to read the RFID tags and autonomously adapt the workplace to his or her skills and preferences. This includes ergonomic initiatives such as height-adjustable benches.

The RFID tag can also connect with workflow management systems to initiate material requests or assembly instructions on behalf of the worker. All subassemblies made on these workstations have a unique identification tag. As the products move from station to station, the subassembly’s RFID tag is closely monitored by the production control system to trigger replenishment of components when necessary. Additionally, product carts are identified by RFID tags and alert automatic guided vehicles (AGV) to automatically pick up materials for the next assembly cycle.

Ultimately, these intelligent tools can generate the data to virtually assemble a “digital twin” of each aircraft, with documentation about the precision and quality of every weld, fastener and electrical connection. This can be delivered to the aircraft’s purchaser and to regulatory authorities as needed to validate the quality of the production.

Improving Data Collection

As smarter assembly tools are integrated into assembly processes, they also begin generating valuable data the entire company can use for CIP. All this new data presents a challenge: how to intelligently manage this data to extract the answers manufacturers need to improve operations and further evolve their i4.0 roadmap.

Companies that seek to upgrade their production systems by incorporating intelligence and sensors into multiple process points and connecting their machines should use their roadmap and lean principles to determine what functions or process points to measure in the first place to make full use of their technology investment.

An i4.0 tool that is being adopted by many manufacturers, especially those with multiple plants or multi-tiered supply chains, is an i4.0 gateway or IoT (Internet of Things) gateway. This gateway is a hardware/software platform that operates as an adjunct to process control logic, making it easier to connect production lines to the Internet of Things (IoT). The platform enables IT applications that collect sensor and process data, transmits the data to manufacturing execution systems, cloud applications or local machine state monitoring systems and enables process data analysis.

With these gateways, plant management can identify problem areas that normal human observation and evaluation of the lean process and lean work cell might not capture. Using this data, product performance management or product quality management can compare similar production operations across an entire aircraft assembly plant, and even access and use cloud computing to compare performance factors across different plants in different global locations.

Analyzing and Visualizing Real-Time Data

Fully programmable tightening tools can adjust torque and rotation settings automatically, according to the part being assembled, while tracking that data to ensure every fastener is tightened correctly.

In some aerospace manual assembly operations, efficient scheduling and tracking of materials pouring in from suppliers and subcontractors — and tracking the progress of installing those assemblies — is still not digitized. For example, in some facilities, when different electrical systems are installed by different crews on the same aircraft, multiple manual whiteboards scattered around the plane are used to do the tracking.

In other industries, assembly and automated production operations have replaced these manual systems with digital Kanban systems that provide more complete, real-time data. This data is organized and presented in a highly informative, visual fashion to track progress and assure that materials and work teams have what they need for each point in the work shift.

These interactive communications platforms process and visualize production data in real time and can network with IT applications, such as production planning, quality data management and emailing throughout plants. They also provide an invaluable tool for start-of-shift quality huddles, helping production teams quickly identify and solve material and workflow issues based on actual data versus historic data.

For example, at Bosch Rexroth’s new Multi-Product Line (MPL) assembly operation in Bethlehem, PA, the company implemented a full-scale manufacturing center using its own Industry 4.0 technology portfolio. A key element in the MPL is an ActiveCockpit system to visualize production data from every area of the plant on a large screen. Employees can also access the information from mobile devices, laptops or tablets. Since operators and managers can access the information from anywhere in the plant, ActiveCockpit can alert them to a problem, allowing them to take corrective action immediately, reducing downtime and minimizing error.

Step-by-Step Into the Factory of the Future

These initial steps demonstrate the incremental investments in i4.0 technology that can be made for a wide range of aerospace production and assembly workflows without significant disruption in current processes and systems.

As more and more smart systems are connected across the assembly floor, the next step — machine learning capabilities — can be developed. When connected devices can communicate, they combine their tasks into logical, automated sequences, so personnel no longer have to tell machines what to do.

The most advanced step — artificial intelligence capabilities — offers the largest return on investment, when production systems can predict their own future before downtime can occur. These last two steps are higher-level goals for aerospace manufacturers, but they are goals to work toward once smarter systems generating useful data are fully woven into the production environment.

As incremental additions of smart systems are integrated across different aerospace workflows, data will become available in real-time, and can be connected and analyzed to further guide and improve each manufacturer’s Factory of the Future roadmap. By identifying i4.0 technology that can be applied today, aerospace manufacturers can better position themselves for tomorrow, step-by-step.

This article was written by Rodney Rusk, i4.0 Business Leader; Doug Luedtke, Aerospace Manufacturing Group; and Doug Rogers, Aerospace Manufacturing Group; Bosch Rexroth Corp. (Charlotte, NC). For more information, visit here .