Applying Augmented Reality Technology to Aerospace Manufacturing

New and powerful projection based augmented reality (AR) technology is transforming the way products — ranging from turbine engines to pacemakers — are made, while dramatically streamlining and error-proofing the manufacturing and assembly process.

While the application details vary slightly across industries, the foundational tools and principles of AR technology have the potential to change the game for aerospace manufacturing. Taking a closer look at the emergence of AR and blended reality technology in a variety of manufacturing industries, and examining how new trends and innovative solutions are already being utilized, provides some valuable insight into how AR can be used to bring anything from jet engines to airplane interiors to life in a smarter, safer and more efficient manner.

Pressures and Priorities

Aerospace manufacturers are keenly focused on refining and optimizing assembly processes. Between the everpresent drive to manage cost and the highly complex regulatory environment, aerospace manufacturers have always focused on quality and efficiency.

In this ongoing quest for improved efficiency and consistency, standardization has long been an asset. From assembly processes to sequencing, standardization helps limit mistakes and affords opportunities to learn and improve over time. This is particularly valuable in an industry such as aerospace manufacturing, where extraordinarily complex parts and processes are par for the course.

Today, however, aerospace manufacturers cannot rely on standardization to the extent that they once could. Customization is on the rise, and the corresponding variation introduces new opportunities for costly errors and inefficiencies. Every new variable creates additional opportunities for errors, and new pain points to address.

A technician works with a Light Guide Systems collaborative robot to correct a problem.

That customization challenge is just one piece of an increasingly complex puzzle, with punitive consequences for even minor mistakes. Whether you are assembling jumbo jets or personal planes, precision is critically important. Even the most common manufacturing pitfalls such as component misalignment; stripped, un-torqued or over-torqued bolts; bottlenecks; or simple human error can slow or halt production. Even worse, these pitfalls create a set of circumstances where flawed parts or products are not discovered until they are actually in use. Delays and manufacturing errors can be particularly costly in the aerospace industry, where the scale of production, parts and products make even the smallest mistake potentially consequential.

When a problem with overheating batteries forced aircraft manufacturer Boeing to halt deliveries of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft in January 2013, as well as ground planes that were already in service, the direct costs associated with the crisis were estimated at around $600 million. That is only part of the story. The lost opportunity costs are harder to calculate, but consider the fact that sacrificing even a handful of aircraft sales to a competitor could represent losses that run into the billions. The ultimate cause of the faulty batteries? The NTSB found that the battery issues were likely caused by manufacturing defects, and cited “unsatisfactory oversight of the manufacturing process.

Happily, aerospace manufacturers now have a new category of tools at their disposal — AR technology solutions that bring together the best elements of human flexibility and ingenuity with the kind of technical precision that can dramatically improve cycle times and standardize assembly sequences. The best AR solutions can be deployed at scale to not only increase efficiency and facilitate error-free productivity, but also to identify, diagnose and correct procedural pain points. Digital “birth certificates” and detailed process data for each and every part make it possible to quickly identify bottlenecks, and ultimately streamline and error-proof assembly and inspection processes.

The potential impact is so profound, acquiring a basic understanding of the principles, practices and potential of this emerging category of AR tech solutions should be a priority for all aerospace manufacturing decision-makers.

Augmented and Interactive

The core of AR technology solutions is a series of systems and technologies designed to deliver hands-on guidance to ensure tasks are completed safely, correctly and efficiently. The best of these solutions deliver that guidance in realtime, using dynamic, interactive and adaptive functionality that can be modified to suit a virtually unlimited range of scenarios, processes and work environments. The result is a previously unattainable level of standardization, even for the most complex systems and sequences, with the potential to save time, money and even lives.

The advances afforded by AR over manufacturing's traditional printed or monitor-based instruction are analogous to the differences between standard paper maps, and the navigation power and convenience of cutting-edge GPS apps. Those differences involve more than just the availability of anytime/anywhere navigation at the push of a button on your smartphone or mobile device, as profound as that is. It's also in how that extraordinary mapping power is delivered, with real-time updates and adaptive, hands-free functionality. Today's GPS apps can adjust on the fly to traffic accidents or wrong turns, shifting instruction to the driver through both visual and audio guidance, optimizing your route while enabling you to focus on the essential task at hand, which is driving the vehicle safely and responsibly. That kind of adaptive, AR-based, hands-free functionality can have a similarly profound impact in a manufacturing setting, guiding manufacturing professionals step-by-step through even the most complex tasks and processes.

The Digital Canvas

Technicians use the Light Guide Systems augmented reality technology to check parts.

One of the key advances that unlocks the flexibility and utility of the best AR technology solutions is the digital operating “canvas” – a virtual overlay that can be projected directly onto almost any work surface. This canvas can provide aerospace manufacturing professionals with detailed hands-free guidance and instruction, complete with visual, audible or haptic prompts, pacing and direction.

In a field like aerospace manufacturing, where uncompromising precision is so essential, integrating a projectionbased AR solution with a suite of complementary technology – including torque tools, machine vision cameras and collaborative robots – can help users achieve formerly unattainable levels of precision and consistency for even the most complex tasks. For example, the best systems are capable of fully errorproofing sequenced torque operations. Using interactive guidance, the operator receives information on next steps in real time, expediting the process by eliminating the need to refer to a separate source location for sequence information. At the same time, the system combines several sensors to independently verify that the correct torque and angle were achieved while the tool was in the correct location.

The Error-Free Objective

A Light Guide Systems operator being guided to select the right part from a bin.

Aerospace manufacturing errors can be costly and consequential; reducing or eliminating avoidable errors is a high priority. The best AR manufacturing solutions feature no-faults-forward functionality that makes it impossible to move forward until the correct steps have been completed in the correct way. This design essentially eliminates the most common sources of human error, and guarantees that the correct parts, processes, programs and protocols are being used at all times.

Quality AR platforms make it possible to utilize extremely detailed monitoring, tracking and verification processes. In such a setup, every step in the manufacturing process is monitored and recorded, with a digital “birth certificate” created for every part and product that comes into or out of the facility. This granular level of detail makes it relatively easy to pinpoint any issues and hone in on procedural bottlenecks, making streamlined optimization not just an abstract ideal, but an achievable goal.

Customizable Efficiency

One of the most exciting aspects of this rapidly expanding suite of AR technology solutions is how easily they can be adapted for use in a wide range of different applications and processes. AR solutions can be readily customized within a facility or across an enterprise to accommodate new parts, processes or programs. The best AR platforms are fully programmable, making it possible for operators on the factory floor to cycle through preset sequences or assembly processes with the push of a button. That efficiency, combined with new tools and accessible tracking and monitoring capabilities, keeps operators focused, boosting productivity and reducing cycle time.

At a time when consistency, flexibility and efficiency are arguably more important than ever, augmented reality technology solutions don't just offer a compelling way forward for aerospace manu-facturing-they have the potential to fundamentally reshape the manufacturing landscape in ways that will confer quality, cost and safety benefits for generations to come.

This article was written by Paul Ryznar, President & CEO, OPS Solutions, LLC (Wixom, MI). For more information, visit here .