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Digitalization Will Boost Aerospace Life Cycles

By Carlos Robles - FEMIA
Vice President, Central Region


By Carlos Robles | Vice President, Central Region of the Mexican Federation of the Aerospace Industry (FEMIA) - Tue, 10/19/2021 - 13:04

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Digitalization in manufacturing today is not a matter of competitiveness but of a need to survive in most business areas. In a recent publication, Deloitte shared that 87 percent of global companies recognize that digitalization will impact their operations and specific industries but only 44 percent are prepared for a possible digital disruption. I do not want to start a discussion on where digitalization will have the biggest impact; on the contrary, I will limit myself to expressing my thoughts on how this is going to change aerospace life cycles.

Historically, the defense industry has behaved like an innovation, research and development laboratory for the aerospace industry; therefore, we can say that the fact that the defense industry is looking for a digital emphasis that will result in a 50 percent cost and delivery schedule reduction is just a prediction of what will happen with the aerospace industry. This is not happening only in the design of new components or to accelerate technology adoption. To survive disruption and thrive in the digital era, everybody needs to become a digital enterprise from beginning to end. Digitalization will impact every element and process of businesses. However, the key needs regarding digitalization trends in aerospace and defense are mainly related to the pressure to reduce the cost and time to delivery. This is no surprise as most industries have experienced an exponential evolution in terms of cost of development and time to market, but the aerospace industry has lagged due mainly to inherent complexities. I firmly believe the digital era is an opportunity to significantly cut both costs and time to delivery, from design to entry into the market.  

Technology in many fields of science has evolved rapidly and we want to integrate that into our new aircraft and spaceship programs but complexity has also increased and from a regulatory and certification standpoint, there is no way that it will be possible or fast enough other than through the use of digitalization. The application of technology will range from design using digital twins to simulation being used for testing and to analyze large quantities of data. The aim is to reduce the cost but mostly the time by years. But new technology adoption is not limited to that. We also need to be very conscious that the electrification of products is increasing exponentially, and this will not slow down; on the contrary, it will accelerate and probably will not stop for the next decade at the very least.

As if all the above were not enough, we need to take in consideration globalization. Yes, it’s an old subject but with the digital era arriving, the distance between the tiers of the global supply chain can be reduced, implying a reduction in time, resources, communication and consequently cost. Imagine you are a supplier of a small component. Decades ago, there were dozens of physical iterations before finding the right design that fit into the aircraft. Material selection, manufacturing processes, geometry and even assembly sequence had to be tested many times until the right one was found. Scrap was huge and the time and cost enormous. Today, digital models are allowing us to do all that testing and proofing virtually. It means no physical material, waste or risk. Iterations are needed but now you can run multiple, simultaneous tests on your computer that simulate all kinds of conditions. Whatever fails, will fail fast and the right design will come fast as well, ready to be manufactured and installed in the real world with a high chance of being right at the first attempt. You do not even have to travel to the OEM destination that often because if digitalization has been vertically adopted there is nothing to see other than computer models, which you can get delivered to your email. The world has gotten smaller for the supply chain.

The digital transformation will allow companies to innovate faster and accelerate product development, offering modern and adaptable solutions in flexible and open ecosystems. Comprehensive digital twins will play a center-stage role. Product digital twins will improve time to market, drive innovation and accelerate testing, allowing companies to anticipate and predict behaviors in service and driving toward proactive solutions. Just imagine that you can have a virtually integrated aircraft able to virtually fly before you build any prototype. The simulation will deliver mountains of data that can be easily processed to deliver a rich understanding of the plane’s performance with almost no risk compared to traditional testing programs. It gets better when you think that any modification can be adopted quickly, tested faster and the conclusion will be reflected in the final product faster than ever.

At the same time, digital process twins will connect disciplines across the life cycle and improve manufacturing efficiency, supply chain tiers and first-time assemblies. In terms of disciplines, the new systems integrated into air products will be based on digital models. Everything will happen in virtual reality environments. Any iteration will be fast, safe and agile. It will be integrated into product design and engineering, including procedures for verification management and manufacturability. At the same time program management will integrate easier and faster program planning and execution, while the supply chain will streamline supplier collaboration at all stages of the life cycle and its management. The impact then for manufacturability will be huge as processes will be designed with those digital models, allowing process engineers to design, test, modify and iterate as much as possible to find the most efficient manufacturing materials and procedures or manufacturing sequence. New advanced manufacturing technologies would be tested and assessed to justify adoption and automation, which to date has been difficult to adopt, can be more flexible and intelligent, easing the process and decreasing return on investment cycles.

Bear in mind that all of this will happen without any physical model or material and that will result in massive savings and verified processes, traceability and documentation. That is where the money and the time savings will be in terms of manufacturing. And if that is not enough, the product support aftermarket and maintenance will be another target in which digitalization will flourish, making processes leaner and paying back with efficiencies.

If you need hard facts and numbers to trust all this, according to Aviation Week, the Boeing TX already is delivering 50 percent less cost than the US Air Force expected. The model-based engineering put in place a 75 percent increase in first-pass quality, 50 percent fewer software hours, less than 0.3 percent of rework and an 80 percent reduction in assembly hours.

We are witnessing a huge technological disruption impacting the life cycle of the aerospace industry from end to end. As with any disruption, it will be challenging at first and then change forever the way we do things in the industry. Digitalization will not be stopped or slowed down but will only get faster every day. You can be an adopter and fly with it or literally sit and see how everybody else is taking off while you assess the integration of your processes. As I stated before, it is not a matter of competitiveness but the key to survival.

Photo by:   Carlos Robles

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