Features

Improving the Skills Gap, Efficiency, and Quality Assurance in Aerospace Manufacturing

Much debate surrounds the skills shortage burdening the manufacturing sector of aerospace and defense (A&D). Industry 4.0, the Baby Boomer retirement wave, and a lack of properly trained workers underpins this issue, and while it's widely acknowledged, there's no clearly defined way to address it.

The Tobii Pro Glasses 2 wearable eye trackers

Figures vary on how extensive this issue is and what impact it will have on productivity- Deloitte forecasts that by 2025 the U.S. manufacturing sector as a whole will see a trained worker shortfall of about 2 million. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) claims almost 40% of companies in its network “predict an ‘extreme’ impact on their business growth caused by this labor shortage.” At the center of this is a dependence on those with skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). STEM workers are in high demand, and while there's a steady stream of graduates with relevant qualifications, ongoing education and training is needed to keep pace with the rapid technological changes taking place within the A&D manufacturing industry.

Research suggests one fifth of the industry's revenue was generated by products developed in the five years to 2015, and it's unlikely this trajectory of technological innovation will change. This presents the issue of finding new specialists with highly advanced skillsets for the job at hand, or finding the resources needed to upskill existing staff.

One example of this is additive manufacturing, which is becoming increasingly more widespread in the A&D sector for building new parts and completing existing components - such as NASA's new (largely 3D printed) rocket engine prototype. The space agency claims this technique could reduce costs by up to 33 percent and cut manufacturing time in half. The financial benefits for commercial enterprises are obvious, but at the moment this gateway to increased productivity is being stalled by the talent gap.

What Is Eye Tracking and Why Is It Useful?

VR headsets retrofitted with eye tracking allows researchers to test workers in a number of different scenarios. Heat maps can visualize points of concentration within the workers’ field of vision.

The idea of applying more technology to address issues stemming from the implementation of other technology might sound strange, but it's proving effective. It's already being used within a number of industrial sectors to identify the causes of inefficiencies, errors and hazards, and enhance training and onboarding.

Eye tracking is exactly what you might assume it is - the observation and recording of human eye movement and fixations. Wearable eye trackers, like Tobii Pro Glasses 2, project invisible, near infrared light beams into the wearer's eyes, the reflection of these beams is picked up by small HD cameras also attached to the glasses; and then using advanced algorithms, it's possible to calculate where a person is looking in precise detail. A built-in scene camera on the glasses captures the surrounding environment which is run through special software to provide a live view of where a person's gaze falls within the environment. It's also possible to record this information and view it later, or compile aggregated data if multiple tests are carried out. New advances in the glasses now allows them to be fitted under a face mask or safety helmet, making it easier to run eye tracking studies in the intense industrial conditions often found in aerospace manufacturing.

Eye tracking data can:

  • uncover subconscious or instinctive behaviors;

  • provide a visual representation of best practice;

  • help understand performance in dangerous or time-critical situations;

  • provide evidence of attention patterns linked to accident or injury;

  • reveal information on cognitive load/overload, and

  • highlight areas for further investigation.

There's also use cases where eye tracking has been applied to test and improve the usability of various components - NASA is currently using Tobii Pro Glasses 2 as a research tool to improve the display interfaces of their spaceflight vehicles.

Reducing the Skills Gap and Increasing Productivity in A&D Manufacturing?

The value of eye tracking data lies in what it reveals about human intent and cognitive processes. Eye movements very often precede action and reveal information about mental processes and cognitive load. Within a factory, for example, many processes are so familiar to workers that they're carried out instinctively and often people make adaptations to the way they perform these tasks. Sometimes these behaviors are subconscious or so small that the person doesn't realize they're doing them. Using eye tracking technology, you're able to see these actions and the effect they have on workflow - do they make it more efficient, or highlight roadblocks in the system? Eye tracking data can answer many questions you may have about your processes. For example, are instructions too complicated and require repeated checking by workers? What method does your best performing worker use to complete a particular task? What visual patterns precede an accident or mistake in the quality assurance process?

Features of the TobiiPro Glasses 2 wearable eye trackers.

Eye tracking data and video also provide a very detailed and clear explanation of how to perform certain tasks, making it possible to incorporate this information into training materials and resources. For the A&D manufacturing sector, it paves the way for the valuable skillsets of the outgoing workforce to be better understood and preserved, and for the training of new workers to be dramatically enhanced.

Eye tracking delivered substantial improvements to the operations of one company in the aerospace manufacturing sector which produces aircraft components. The business experienced issues with its inspection processes, which forced it to increase resources to cope with the volume of problems not being picked up by the manufacturing inspectors. By using eye tracking to study the observation methods and visual attention of the manufacturing inspectors and comparing this to the same data obtained from the quality assurance inspectors who were detecting the problems, it was possible to see how issues were going unseen and at the same time illustrate how the manufacturing inspectors could improve their methods. The company was able to reduce inspecting times significantly and cut errors in half.

In another case, the insight from an eye tracking study identified substantial savings in the onboarding time of new workers at a metal foundry. Eye tracking glasses were worn by the workers at H&H Castings while they performed the task of pouring molten metal into molds. The study identified the best techniques for carrying out this dangerous and technical process and by incorporating this knowledge into training protocols, the company expects to cut two days off each worker's training time. Similarly, a major car manufacturer reduced training time for new production line staff from six to four weeks and lowered visual inspecting errors by 50% thanks to the information gathered from their eye tracking study.