Going Digital in the Aerospace Industry - The Runway to Newer Horizons

Arvind Mehra, Executive Director & CEO, Mahindra Aerospace | Wednesday, 07 February 2018, 10:45 IST

The aerospace industry has always been a keen observer of technology that can impact operations — especially in manufacturing. It’s no wonder then that Aircraft OEMs have been focusing on ushering in Industry 4.0, which undoubtedly is the future of manufacturing. In simple terms, this revolution involves the employment of information technology to allow seamless communication between humans, machines, and other resources. In addition to other benefits, it promises to drive productivity and efficiency in all aspects of aerospace.

This interconnectedness is the natural progression of adoption of digital technologies in the industry. Though some emerging technologies are already being adopted by aerospace companies in varying degrees, the transformation is still in its nascent stage. The coming years are bound to see companies increasingly adopt these innovative technologies and realize their full benefit.

In the context of India, the aerospace industry is still a young one. During this growth phase, the focus remains on delivering to the demanding process specifications of global OEMs while maintaining perfect on-time deliveries. However, Indian companies are increasingly feeling the need to adopt new technologies to sustain this performance. An important influencer is the proposed cost-benefit analysis — new technologies will most likely be deployed where labour is not a determining factor in advanced manufacturing and where the sheer volume of activity requires automation.

Here are some thoughts on how ‘going digital’ can help the aerospace industry accelerate business growth and customer satisfaction.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) enhancements

Most manufacturing setups with aggressive growth targets need to commit to continuous improvements in ERP. An example is our own facility in Bangalore, which we inaugurated in 2013 with a baseline ERP solution in place. Since then we have been on a continuous journey of improvement to get real-time digital data capture; initially material movement into, within, and out of the facility, then production/capacity planning through ERP. Now we are linking our ERP to our key customers’ ERP to allow their demand forecasts to ‘talk’ to our capacity plans and alert decision-makers on either side of potential challenges in the future.

In the present scenario, there is a need for seamless communication not just within the organisation, but also encompassing the whole value chain of the aerospace industry.

Internet-of-Things (IoT)

IoT is increasingly gaining importance in the aerospace sector and will play a key role in transitioning to Industry 4.0. IoT is being used across the whole lifecycle of the product that is from design to manufacture to in-service maintenance. That’s not all, the ability to capture data in real-time and integrate multiple data points (even from multiple locations in the world) to a single interface can bring in whole new efficiency levels.

OEMs believe that IoT will help them reduce production lead-time and improve supply chain integration, helping them to clear their current backlog of 10-11 years as well as improve their cashflows. In addition to reducing new product development timelines, real-time feedback can bring about a significant decrease in cost.

In India, a few players have already initiated the use of this technology towards getting real-time KPI updates for timely decision-making. To exemplify, Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) of hundreds of machines can be monitored online to immediately detect the machines falling behind. This helps to take immediate corrective action rather than waiting till the end of the month.

Robotics & Artificial Intelligence

While the automobile and electronics manufacturing industries have seen an increasing use of robotics, aerospace manufacturing is still to leverage the full benefits of automation. Now Aerospace OEMs have started exploring technologies such as ‘Collaborative Robots’. These are ‘humanoid’ robots, specifically designed to work in the same environment as human operators, sharing tools and production resources. These new robots are aware of their surroundings and even collaborate with humans.

However, the Indian aerospace industry is facing challenges in adopting these technologies in the near future. Large variety of parts, comparatively low volumes, high capital costs make it practically difficult for us to adopt automation in its entirety. As we grow in the global supply chain, higher business volumes will make it possible to consider these systems.

3D Printing

This technology allows the creation of parts and/or tools through additive manufacturing at much faster rates than traditional machining. Where traditional methods take months to develop the process, we can now 3D-print the concept on the same day, enabling companies to be a step ahead of the competition. This technology allows companies to quickly test ideas and discover what doesn’t work, thereby accelerating the journey to an ideal solution. In effect, 3D printing allows a product developer to make relatively inexpensive breakthroughs at early stages, leading to better products and less expensive dead-ends.

The global aerospace industry has just started accepting this technology for serial production parts. In the coming years, the technology will provide a good alternative for complex parts production. As volumes pick up, the cost of 3D printing and inspecting (which could be a limiting factor today) will automatically come down. However, the question still remains — will customers accept a 3D printed part in flight-critical areas? That mindset was true for acceptance of composite parts as well. Over a period of time, acceptance is bound to take place.

Dennis Gabor, the inventor of holography, once wrote that “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” The aerospace industry is young in India, and going digital aggressively can be the ‘tipping point’ that gives us the boost to swiftly achieve the upper echelons of manufacturing.