Science fiction writers are often heralded as great visionaries and predictors of future technology. But, “serious” writers, so to speak, also have their prophetic moments, even if by accident.
Consider the most famous writer in the English language, William Shakespeare. In 1611, he penned the classic play The Tempest about a shipwreck caused by an exiled Duke with magical powers.
Little did the Bard realize that more than four centuries later, a leading manufacturer would envision and create a British fighter aircraft that would carry the Tempest name. Or that this jet would be an aeronautical marvel built using several Industry 4.0 (I4.0) technologies.
“Since a UK Government announcement in 2018, we’ve been working at pace to utilize many advanced technologies to help create a Future Combat Air System called Tempest,” explains Austin Cook, principal technology and lead for the Factory of the Future project at BAE Systems. “Our goal on the production floor is to make major progress in machine connectivity, data collection, assembly automation, additive manufacturing and worker visualization during this time. By 2030, we need to have proven production systems in place for the Tempest, so it will be ready as a combat air system in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) by 2035.”
Implementing these technologies will bring many benefits to BAE’s “smart factory” in Warton, Lancashire, England, according to Cook. The most important are higher productivity, increased precision and reduced costs associated with manufacturing complex military aircraft structures.
Partnering with BAE on the Team Tempest project are Rolls-Royce (jet engine manufacturer), Leonardo UK (defense and aerospace company), MBDA UK (European missile developer and manufacturer) and the RAF. Others include high-tech companies, small and medium-size enterprises, and academia across the United Kingdom.
A decade ago, the German government introduced the concept of I4.0 in a detailed report to promote the computerization, digitalization, interconnectivity and information transparency of manufacturing in its country. Since then, manufacturers throughout the aerospace and defense industries around the world have worked hard to make I4.0 a practical—and profitable—reality for both themselves and their customers.
Slowly, Surely, Uniquely
Paradoxically, even though a large percentage of aerospace and defense (A&D) manufacturers are aware of I4.0, they do not take a universal approach to its implementation. Instead, each company carefully determines the specific benefits it can obtain from I4.0.
“A big reason why we don’t see a greater adoption of I4.0 in aerospace and defense is company CFOs don’t automatically think of it as value creation,” says Helena Lisachuk, a partner at Deloitte Consulting, which has recently conducted extensive worldwide research on I4.0 implementation. “They need to be shown which technologies are being brought in and where, as well as each technology’s success factor, like an OEE increase of 2 percent.
“However, a strong business case is not enough," Lisachuk continues. "You must also have support of the company leadership to provide the proper worker skills and change the culture. When all of these things are brought together, you will see incredible innovations at scale.”
One company that has been on board with I4.0 from the beginning is Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMC), the world’s largest defense contractor. Johnathon Caldwell, vice president of business innovation, transformation and enterprise excellence at Lockheed Martin Space, says these technologies have “revolutionized” operations at his company, resulting in process optimization from the supply chain, through design, manufacturing and final testing.
Another major A&D player implementing I4.0 is Northrop Grumman. Chris Daughters, aeronautics system sector vice president of research, technology and engineering at Northrop Grumman, especially likes that I.40 has enabled his sector engineers to make key manufacturing decisions earlier in the design process than ever before.
“Designing for manufacturability, modeling the production environment, and then producing our products with a minimum of duplicated effort—this can give us the breakthroughs in speed and affordability that the A&D environment needs in a time of limited budgets and rapidly changing threats,” explains Daughters. “These technologies are an essential component to our ‘digital thread’ across the product life cycle. They give us the ability to simulate tradeoffs between capability, manufacturability, complexity, materials and cost before transitioning to the physical world.”
“In a nutshell, I4.0 involves leveraging technology to better serve the world,” says Matt Medley, industry director for A&D manufacturing at IFS, a multinational enterprise software company. “More than just collecting and processing mounds of data via sensors and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), I4.0 is turning data into actionable intelligence to not only drive efficiency and grow profits, but to also help companies be good stewards of our natural resources and local communities. Aerospace and defense companies whose enterprise software can keep pace with developments like additive manufacturing, AI, digital twins, and virtual and augmented reality (V/AR) are the ones that will thrive in an increasingly digital 4.0 era.”
The number of commercial airliner manufacturers has never been extremely large. But over the last few years, the two largest manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, have implemented various I4.0 technologies.
“Converging physical and digital systems [are causing] massive transformations in the way we design, manufacture and service our products, and how our customers operate them,” notes Phillip Crothers, enterprise domain leader of manufacturing at Boeing. “It’s about bringing together traditional manufacturing and design tools such as CAD and building information modeling, data management and physics-based simulations, and connecting physical assets through the IIoT to enable product life cycle management.”
Crothers says that Boeing is piloting several manufacturing projects based on digital and systems architectures that can be successfully implemented locally, and then quickly scaled across the company. He cites the example of computing power and AI technologies, such as machine learning, that let engineers extract valuable patterns from factors that positively influence the quality or productivity of Boeing’s manufacturing processes.
“By capturing these patterns and implementing a closed loop of control, we can enhance our operations in real time, while also capturing data that can be run in future design loops,” explains Crothers. “Direct management of [our] supply chain is another example. I4.0 enables real-time connection across the globe for reporting, collaboration, control and recovery from disruption.”
In the fall of 2019, Airbus implemented a highly automated fuselage assembly line at its A320 factory in Hamburg, Germany. The new line features a digital data acquisition system, 20 robots, automated guided vehicles, and automated positioning by laser measurement.
At the start of the line, eight robots drill and countersink 1,100 to 2,400 holes per longitudinal joint. In the next step, 12 robots, each operating on seven axes, combine the center and aft fuselage sections with the tail to form one major component. The robots drill, countersink, seal and insert 3,000 rivets per orbital joint.
Last year, engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) began working with Airbus in Hamburg to learn how to detect and predict disruptions when transporting and installing jetliner cabin doors. The material delivery unit that transports a door from the supplier to the fuselage on the assembly line is equipped with diverse AirBOX sensors and data storage systems that supply engineers with relevant information during the entire operation.
“Although it tracks the cabin door’s location and temperature continuously, it does not send a signal to the server until the sensor data include two criteria: the correct installation location and attainment of room temperature,” notes Martin Woitag, a research scientist at IFF. “Only then is the cabin door ready for installation, because it has not only been delivered but also warmed up to the temperature of the fuselage.”
The sensor data and events are stored in a local database and visualized on the Web. Up to six automatically recognized and preconfigured sensors can be connected to the box to build a sensor network.
Siegharts, Austria-based TEST-FUCHS (TF) manufactures test systems, components and the ground support equipment used for Airbus and Boeing aircraft, as well as those made by Embraer S.A.in Brazil. Over the past three years, TF has relied on IFS enterprise resource planning software to optimize its mechanical engineering and manufacturing operations across Austria, Germany, Italy, France, UK, USA, Singapore and China.
“Our recently introduced IFS Cloud provides the entire spectrum of software solutions on one platform, with one common user experience,” says Medley. “It makes aerospace manufacturers better equipped to deliver that all-important moment of service: the moment when they get judged and either delight or disappoint the end-user. This can occur at any time—whether they’re providing a critical part or component further up the manufacturing supply chain, or making sure an asset is ready to operate as part of a service-based agreement with an equipment operator.”
Northrop Grumman has been working hard to combine its 3D design development process with manufacturing large plane sections weighing thousands of pounds. Daughters also says his company is using advanced technology to manufacture complex microelectronics.
“I4.0 doesn’t have clear limitations,” says Daughters. “Besides increasing production capacity and efficiency, it enables us to perform model-based manufacturing (MBM). This is where we run simulations of engineering models to assess manufacturability before finalizing the engineering design. MBM makes manufacturing cost an independent variable in design, which is a big benefit to our programs by compressing the cost and production schedule.”
A Strong Defense
As military spending has increased the last few years nationally and internationally, I4.0 technologies have likewise gained in popularity among defense contractors. For BAE, these technologies present an important, and necessary, opportunity to transform how it builds military aircraft.
“Because we’re a large company, with a rich history and experience in producing military aircraft, we have many systems and methods in place that, for us to truly change, can be transformed to improve efficiency,” says Cook. “Overall, implementing I4.0 is going well and making our manufacturing more adaptable. These technologies allow us to convert key data to visual metrics that we can actually use.”
At its Lancashire plant, BAE is transforming the way humans and machines operate together. Collaborative and flexible robots remove the need for fixed, long-lead tooling, and intelligent machines have been modified to operate at tolerances as precise as less than a third the width of a human hair.
Traditionally, an aircraft moves from one station to the next in each stage of the manufacturing process. Here, an agile operating system, combined with digital and automated technology, allows workers to switch from one aircraft program or operation to another, without the need for heavy, jig structures. This flexible approach to manufacturing is also helping the company in its drive towards Net Zero, with reduced requirements for bespoke buildings and tooling.
In 2018, BAE developed an intelligent workstation in collaboration with Fairfield Control Systems Ltd. (FCS) and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield. The workstation has since been modified for use on the Typhoon aircraft production line since 2019.
After a worker logs on to the workstation, he or she receives work instructions on a tablet that is issued from the BAE’s SAP (systems applications and products) software. As the person works through the instructions, a 3D optical projection system highlights specific work steps within the instructions. An automatic vision system is then used to verify an instruction has been correctly completed before moving on to the next one.
Both the tablet and projection system use AR through a combination of hardware and software. Separately, last fall BAE finalized the prototype of AR glasses on a headset that provides imagery stabilization, and can be worn in harsh environments and on moving platforms, further adding to the digitalization of BAE’s manufacturing capability.
“As we continue to operate as a digitally connected enterprise, connectivity is key,” points out Caldwell. “We need to adopt the right technological advancements and digital engineering to ensure we promote connectivity across all our programs and manufacturing portfolios, with cybersecurity built in.
“It is also important that we improve the strength, innovation and cybersecurity of our entire supply chain through this transformation,” adds Caldwell. “For example, we use the tenets of Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification to make sure that all critical suppliers are connected on the right levels of cybersecurity when sharing data.”
LMC uses an Intelligent Factory Framework (IFF) approach to IIoT. It automatically collects, analyzes, standardizes and normalizes machine data, such as telemetry information. It then pools and shares the data over a cyber-secure network that meets U.S. government regulatory requirements.
“We use application programming interfaces, machine learning and software-defined networking so machines companywide can automatically report on their status in real time,” continues Caldwell. “Through the end of this year, we plan to deploy our IFF 2.0 to 12 manufacturing sites. This upgrade will include enhanced networking, wireless support, a classified design concept, and a standard streaming data pipeline for digital tools, such as torque wrenches.”
Made for the Stars
Increasingly, the factory of the future is becoming the factory of the present—a place where advanced technologies are a daily reality for manufacturers. One such technology is the digital twin, which is a virtual representation that serves as the real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process.
The current concept of a digital twin has been around since 2002, when Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan coined the term. However, NASA first used pairing technology, the precursor to digital twin technology, in the 1960s. This technology helped NASA engineers physically duplicate systems at ground level to match the systems in space. It also helped them determine how to rescue the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.
Today, LMC uses digital twins to support NASA’s missions, and the company is already applying this technology on spacecraft like the OSIRIS-REx, which was launched in 2016 on a mission to obtain a sample from the Bennu 8 asteroid before returning to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023. NASA is working with LMC on this mission, with its engineers using the company’s digital twin maturity model throughout. According to Olivia Billett, systems engineer and science phase lead for ORISIS-REx at LMC, the model helps project engineers be more responsive to the mission plan as it evolves.
LMC is also integrating its digital twin maturity models with its manufacturing and production processes at different company plants, and aligning it with the extended supply chain. Caldwell says doing this helps promote industry standards across all of the programs that LMC supports.
Among LMC’s major space manufacturing facilities is the Gateway Center, a satellite production plant located on the company’s Waterton Canyon campus near Denver. Completed in 2020, the $350 million facility includes a state-of-the-art, high bay clean room capable of simultaneously building micro and macro satellites. Its paperless, digitally enabled production environment incorporates rapidly reconfigurable production lines and advanced test capabilities. The Center includes an expansive thermal vacuum chamber to simulate the harsh environment of space, an anechoic chamber for highly perceptive testing of sensors and communications systems, and an advanced test operations and analysis center.
LMC also has a facility in Courtland, AL, where it uses advanced manufacturing to develop hypersonic technologies. Applications include integrating 2D and 3D electronic foam board for tedious operations like wire harness assembly and certifying key development stages.
In a separate project, LMC recently partnered with NEC Corp. of America to integrate NEC’s System Invariant Analysis Technology (SIAT) into LMC’s Technology for Telemetry Analytics for Universal Artificial Intelligence (T-TAURI) AI platform. According to Caldwell, the T-TAURI has been used to analyze data throughout various production processes, with great success.
One application involves the Orion Artemis III spacecraft that LMC is building for NASA. Within a four-hour period, T-TAURI and SIAT built a model of the craft’s normal operations from nearly 150,000 sensors to establish more than 22 billion logical relationships for analysis.
This and similar models can be used to monitor all future tests of subsequent vehicles to compare expected and irregular behavior, analyze consistency and aid in regression analysis. Without these advanced AI and machine learning tools, it would be impossible for a single engineer to manually analyze a massive amount of data in its entirety at the speed needed.
Another I4.0 technology used by LMC workers to build Orion is mixed reality, which is provided through an AR headset and VR environments. The headset allows workers hands to be free to manipulate hardware as voice commands guide them through every assembly step. Holographic instructions are overlaid on the relevant parts of the four seats that workers assemble and install in the Orion.
For tasks requiring precise measuring by hand—like marking locations for hundreds of fasteners on the spacecraft’s adapter jettison fairings—technicians using holographic instructions have finished these repetitive tasks 90 percent faster. In addition, assembly mistakes have been eliminated, and LMC has experienced zero errors or rework requests on tasks in which workers were assisted by the headsets.
AR devices also eliminate the need to pass paper or tablets back and forth, and allow people to solve problems without having to look over someone’s shoulder or go visit a worksite.