Information technology (IT) is playing a central role in modern aerospace manufacturing, delivering significant operational advantages and cost savings across the board. In fact, today’s aerospace industry could not function without the support of IT software tools.
Why IT Matters
The Wright Brothers were able to build the pioneering Wright Flyer in their Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop without the aid of any computerized technology. Of course, the Wright Flyer was made of spruce wood and natural fabric, and the only three instruments onboard were an anemometer to measure distance, a stopwatch, and a “Veedor” engine-revolutions counter to measure engine rpms. It also only achieved a top speed of about 30 mph within a service ceiling of about 30 feet.
Today’s aircraft are considerably more complex than the Wright Flyer, made of exponentially more advanced materials and flying far faster and higher. It is for this reason that IT has become central to every aspect of aircraft design, manufacturing, testing and maintenance. The human brain alone can’t successfully manage all of the variables involved.
“There are common challenges across commercial and governmental segments of aerospace which are consistently growing,” said Adrian Wood. He is Dassault Systèmes’ director of Strategy & Marketing for DELMIA in the Aerospace & Defense industry. DELMIA is Dassault Systèmes’ brand focused on end-to-end management software for digital manufacturing and industrial processes. “These challenges are related to the increasing complexity of aircraft systems which require an exacting level of quality and safety,” Wood explained. “In particular, aerospace manufacturing is increasingly intertwined with software and electronics as innovation explodes. This means that the systems used to plan and execute manufacturing have struggled to keep up with monitoring and managing quality aspects of process, production and materials.”
The advent of new aerospace manufacturing approaches such as ‘additive manufacturing’ (aka 3D printing) is adding to the complexities of 21st century aircraft production. “These new manufacturing strategies can be challenging to incorporate into legacy systems,” said Wood. “Mixing the two often result in ‘silos of technology’ within factories that can reduce manufacturing efficiency.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the above problems worse while adding new issues to the mix, thanks to the disruption of supply chains and available labor forces, plus drastic drops in demand. Put under this additional strain, older production systems proved unable to provide much-needed ‘Big Picture’ overviews for many aerospace manufacturers. “In addition, disconnected data and systems across the supply chain prevented effective decisions from being made rapidly,” Wood observed. This is why the demand for modern IT systems to manage all aspects of aerospace manufacturing has grown in recent months.
New Ways of Doing Things
The increasing importance of IT in aerospace manufacturing is part of a larger, more fundamental revolution in manufacturing known as ‘Industry 4.0’. The ‘4.0’ refers to the notion that the world is currently undergoing a fourth Industrial Revolution, one that updates traditional industrial practices using artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, robotics, and quantum computing.
In the aerospace manufacturing world, this revolution is called ‘Aerospace & Defense 4.0’ (A&D 4.0). “In an A&D 4.0 world, the benefits for aerospace manufacturers can be huge, ranging from increased efficiency to enhanced profits and security, not to mention a highly satisfied customer base,” said Matt Medley. He is industry director, A&D Manufacturing at IFS, a producer of aerospace and defense management software for aerospace and defense manufacturers, airline and fleet operators, MROs, and military operators.
IT is central to the A&D 4.0 revolution. “Initiatives such as additive manufacturing, AI, digital twins (real-time digital counterparts of physical objects and/or processes), and virtual/augmented reality now have greater presence in aerospace manufacturing,” Medley said. “It will be the companies whose enterprise software can keep pace with these developments that will thrive in an increasingly Industry 4.0 era. But those benefits cannot be realized without the support of a software facilitator like IFS, to put the building blocks in place to build and execute an A&D 4.0 strategy.”
In this Brave New A&D 4.0 World, there are key concepts that aerospace manufacturers need to know and adopt in order to get ahead. The uber-concept that encompasses them all is “Future Factory”, which is the real-world embodiment of A&D 4.0 in action.
In turn, the Future Factory model is comprised of three key concepts. The first concept is “connectivity to the real world” (aka the Industrial Internet of Things), where manufacturers are in constant digital interaction with their equipment to monitor and manage every aspect of the production process. “The second concept is continuity of information between manufacturing and other silos in the product lifecycle (such as design and engineering),” said Wood. “Leveraging model-based information from 3D designs to manufacturing bills of materials across unified platforms means organizations can respond better to unexpected disruption and increase efficiency of operations.”
The third Future Factory concept is using AI production tools to enable effective collaboration between all stakeholders. Doing so can result in more accurate and timely decision-making, to the benefit of plant owners and customer alike.
“All of these concepts rely upon connectivity of data and processes, which is where IT plays a crucial role in deploying and supporting the backbone of technology that is required,” Medley said. “Vendors have made it increasingly easier to deploy cloud-based solutions without requiring massive ‘Big Data’ initiatives or ‘Big Bang’ implementations, but there is still a need for IT to provide a meaningful and consistent methodology to the implementation of these connected systems.”
There are two more Future Factory concepts that matter. They are ‘Intelligent Manufacturing’ and ‘Digital Manufacturing’, and they are related to each other.
Intelligent Manufacturing refers to the optimization of all resources and constraints within a production process in order to achieve the best possible outcomes. “It is the application of technology and process to aggregate data from diverse sources, take input from various stakeholders and to deliver an optimal plan for manufacturing that will drive sustainable business operations,” said Wood. “This is incredibly difficult to achieve given the complexity of today’s manufacturing and rate of disruption and change.”
This is where Digital Manufacturing comes to the rescue. It is an IT-driven approach that assists the Intelligent Manufacturing process by using relevant data to deal with complex issues and deliver the best outcomes in a timely, reliable manner. “Whether the decisions are being made strategically using ‘digital twin’ (virtual processes mimicking physical processes) experiences to plan for new facilities and production lines, or more tactically to develop manufacturing schedules for daily shift work, the digital thread connects these decisions and closes the loop between the virtual and real worlds to drive continuous improvement,” Wood noted.
A Wealth of IT Options
According to data published online by the research firm ReportLinker (www.reportlinker.com), “The global aerospace market is expected to grow from $298.01 billion in 2020 to $327.96 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10%. The growth is mainly due to the companies rearranging their operations and recovering from the COVID-19 impact, which had earlier led to restrictive containment measures involving social distancing, remote working, and the closure of commercial activities that resulted in operational challenges. The market is expected to reach $430.87 billion in 2025 at a CAGR of 7%.”
With money like this on the table, it is no wonder that IT software companies have developed software solutions tailored to the aerospace manufacturing industry’s unique data needs.
Dassault Systèmes is one of these companies. Its suite of aerospace and defense software solutions work together on a centralized platform to provide manufacturers with “a unified final vision of their architecture but without being ‘locked in’ to a monolithic ‘ERP’ (enterprise resource planning) style deployment approach,” said Adrian Wood. “Removing legacy silos also provides a rich ROI in terms of total cost of ownership related to maintaining and connecting older bespoke/custom IT applications.”
IFS is another such company. “IFS enterprise software holds the key to transforming aerospace manufacturing operations, from capitalizing on new technology and reacting to industry challenges to ensuring compliance and upholding cybersecurity requirements,” Matt Medley said. “The flexibility, industry-specificity and security focus of IFS ERP underpin business transformation, not just for the here and now, but into the future – helping aerospace manufacturers capitalize on technology which hasn’t even been developed yet or security mandates which haven’t yet been drawn up.” (The company recently launched IFS Cloud to provide its software solutions on one platform, through one common user experience.)
SAP is well-known for its range of ERP products. In fact, for many people, the name ‘SAP’ is synonymous with the term ‘ERP’.
For the aerospace manufacturing industry, the company offers ‘SAP for Aerospace & Defense’ (SAP for A&D). It is an ERP platform tailored to the specific requirements in aerospace and defense industries, their suppliers, as well as MROs.
“When you assemble a complex structure such as an airplane, the approach taken is quite different than process manufacturing for chemicals,” said Torsten Welte, SAP’s Global VP and head of Industrial Business Unit for Aerospace & Defense. “This is why SAP developed a new solution in the area for complex manufacturing that is very specific to aerospace and defense. Our goal at SAP is to provide the tools necessary across the value chain of manufacturing so our customers can optimize their throughput based on constraints in the area of finance, supply chain, workers, quality and tools. We can also integrate our platform with PLM systems made by Dassault Systèmes, Siemens and PTC.”
In particular, SAP and Siemens are now collaborating to assist the integration of their mutual software products. “We offer now A&D companies that use Siemens PLM full integration with SAP so that they can gain access to finance and supply chain,” Welte said. “Siemens is also benefiting in this relationship by reselling SAP tools, such as our SAP product lifecycle costing tool.”
According to Torsten Welte, SAP for A&D helps to track the time spent and tools used by workers in aerospace manufacturing. It also records the work instructions that they follow, which is particularly during a crisis such as COVID-19 where “a lot of companies initially cut 30 percent of their workforce and now they have to bring people back into production,” he said. “Sometimes people have to now do jobs that they haven’t done before. Having access to these instructions with SAP for A&D can be very valuable.”
Siemens provides a wide range of aerospace and defense software solutions. For the aerospace manufacturing industry, “we cover everything from supply chain management and manufacturing planning to plant simulation/execution, process design and quality control,” said Dale Tutt, vice president Aerospace and Defense Industry at Siemens Digital Industries Software.
In line with the A&D 4.0 revolution, Siemens uses both virtual and augmented reality to help manufacturers manage their production systems more efficiently and economically. A case in point: The company’s ‘Virtual Commissioning’ software feature allows companies to plan and deploy proposed new manufacturing assembly lines/factories in virtual reality, so that they can ‘see’ how their concepts translate into reality.
“Speaking from personal experience. I know all about the disruptions that adding a new manufacturing process can cause to a company’s overall output, due to unexpected tooling issues or parts not fitting together as expected,” Tutt said. “You can end up losing two to four months’ worth of production time and millions of dollars pretty quickly. Being able to check your assumptions in virtual reality first can avoid these losses, and allow you to come up with solutions that work as planned when executed in the real world.”
Looking ahead, Siemens is continuing to “close the loop” on the processes it’s A&D 4.0 software solutions cover, said Tutt, so that every aspect of aerospace manufacturing is digitally systematized and integrated from start to finish. To achieve this, the company is using data analytics tools such as its own Mindsphere IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) service solution to fine-tune its approach to process optimization, and improving the work flows it has developed for composite materials. “In closing the loop, we want to ensure digital thread continuity from product design and engineering to manufacturing and product delivery,” said Tutt. “That’s what Siemens is investing in today.”
PTC is a digital solutions company with a substantial share of the U.S. federal Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) market, which offers a large suite of IT-based solutions to aerospace and defense. “We support computer-aided design using the respected Creo software tool,” said Major General H. Brent Baker (retired), PTC’s vice president Worldwide Federal Aerospace and Defense. “We also employ Creo to provide AI-enabled generative design capabilities to create virtual 3D products.”
As well, PTC’s Windchill PLM software products help aerospace manufacturers to keep a close eye on their entire enterprises, and its open architecture lets it integrate easily with other company IT systems, including IoT management platforms. Meanwhile, PTC’s Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM) collects real-time data from sensors located on manufacturing equipment, so that issues can be spotted early and maintenance done as actually required, rather than on a preset schedule. This saves manufacturers money and time lost to unnecessarily downed equipment.
“Using data captured from sensors in real-time, PTC’s CBM software solutions are able to spot conditions that need to be remedied now, plus predict future issues and prescriptive maintenance more accurately for aerospace manufacturers,” said David Segal, PTC’s director of FAD&E Business Transformation. “That’s the A&D 4.0 revolution that PTC is leading today using AI and IoT.”
Headquartered in India with offices around the globe, Ramco Systems serves a range of aerospace industries with its end-to-end ERP solutions. The ‘Ramco Aviation Solution’ platform helps aerospace manufacturers handle a range of critical functions such as supply chain management, production and manufacturing, and enterprise asset management, among others.
“Aerospace manufacturing organizations must manage demand from multiple sources like OEMs, part suppliers, and their own parts sales and maintenance networks, and this demand must be balanced effectively with all of the operational capacity and supply constraints,” said Saravanan Rajarajan, head of Solution Consulting in Ramco’s Aviation division. “The Ramco Aviation Solution Manufacturing module addresses these key requirements with advanced ML (Machine Learning) based algorithms. This helps organizations to optimize inventory, resources, and capacity.”
iBASEt Offers Manufacturing, Quality, and MRO Software Solutions
Like many of the IT companies mentioned in this article, iBASEt makes end-to-end discrete manufacturing solutions for the aerospace and defense industry. Its flagship product is the iBASEt Digital Operations Suite.
“The iBASEt Digital Suite is a group of three solutions we built organically to serve our customers in the aerospace, defense, medical device, electronics, and other complex discrete industries,” said John Simmons, iBASEt’s MRO product manager (at right). “The suite, which includes an MES (manufacturing execution system), SQM (supplier quality management), and MRO solution, resides on a common microservices architecture. Integrated quality management is part of every solution, so this makes it easy for MRO facilities and manufacturers to adhere to strict regulatory compliance requirements while maintaining high quality standards.”
Given the tight budget constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Simmons said MROs need to consider digitalizing their MRO operations to best take advantage of Industry 4.0 technologies in their operations, to work seamlessly with other departments and partners across the rest of the aerospace industry. “Right now is a golden opportunity for MRO facilities to invest in new digital technologies,” he explained. “Much of the MRO work now performed is still done manually using paper based processes. With the digital transformation that has changed how production processes are planned, executed, and managed, the MRO industry has to catch up.”
John Simmons stressed the importance of using end-to-end operations platforms for the entire aerospace and defense industry, no matter what the specifics of their businesses. “The pursuit of becoming a digital enterprise means that the data that is collected and shared must be readily available to support real time decisions,” he said. “The iBASEt Digital Suite interoperates with ERP, PLM, and other enterprise applications to ensure real time visibility and control can be shared across the modern enterprise’s digital ecosystem.”
“The end goal for manufacturers today is to establish a digital thread that lasts from cradle to grave of every product,” Simmons concluded. “The iBASEt Digital Suite can provide this capability. Now is the time to adopt digital technology as part of how MRO operations are managed.”
COVID Is Speeding Up IT Progress
The many advantages provided by IT-enhanced aerospace manufacturing explains why this technology has made such inroads into the industry. But before COVID-19 arrived, there were still some holdouts among aerospace manufacturers. Despite the clear benefits of moving to A&D 4.0, some companies were lagging behind.
Things have changed since then. Faced with the additional supply chain, production, and sales issues posed by the pandemic’s stranglehold on the world economy, aerospace manufacturers everywhere have ‘seen the light’ when it comes to A&D 4.0 and acted accordingly.
“While COVID-19 didn’t create the trends that are driving aerospace manufacturers towards A&D 4.0, it certainly accelerated them,” said Major General Baker. “Some of the progress that we’re seeing around remote training of the workforce, being able to collaborate in cyberspace and the cloud, and adopting condition-based maintenance versus scheduled maintenance — those trends were occurring but COVID has really sped them. This acceleration is good news for the aerospace manufacturing industry and its customers, and PTC is pretty excited to be part of that.”
The bottom line: The A&D 4.0 revolution is changing the fundamental nature of aerospace manufacturing for the better. The Wright Brothers wouldn’t have recognized this radical new approach to building aircraft back in their Dayton bicycle shop. But once they had grasped the astounding benefits of this IT-driven revolution, they would have approved.