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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.

Manufacturers and plant operators have begun to appreciate the impact that i4.0 technology offers their businesses. However, before deciding what sensors to install and where, it’s important to start by applying lean principles in order to map the value stream and identify where time is wasted, or scrap is created. Lean principles can be used to locate where initial investments in sensor and data-collecting technologies can have the greatest impact.

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.