How will the digital transformation change the aerospace industry

“There has never been a time when so many civil aircraft were produced in France as today,” emphasized Marwan Lahoud, President of Gifas (The French Aerospace Industries Association), upon the presentation of the sector’s 2016 results – and this is a trend that is repeated on an international scale.

In 2010, the worldwide aviation sector had 3.4 million available seats. Today, that capacity is close to 5 million and, over the next ten years, 10,000 new aircrafts will be built, giving an average annual growth rate of over 3%.

This market dynamic nevertheless poses substantial questions. How can enough aircraft be produced each year to meet this high demand? How to satisfy increasingly demanding customers, who want rapid aircraft deployment while addressing rising passenger expectations? How can the design cycle for new aircraft be accelerated, even though the production chain is already challenging?

The solution lies in the world of digital, and we are only just seeing its earliest beginnings.

First, here is an overview of the impact of digital transformation technologies on businesses, between 2016 and 2019:

Digital and the “human factor”

The first challenge, even ahead of increasing production capacity, is to improve the productivity of existing structures. In particular, this will involve a reduction in rework and remanufacturing of parts, via a reduction in error rates and production defects.

Many of these defects are still due to the “human factor.” At a certain degree of process sophistication the human is often the weak link in the chain. The introduction of automation and digital technology in the production cycle can limit risks and improve the effectiveness of quality control, parts assembly, or the preparation of maintenance activities.

Value added by digital

Digital represents a real potential to optimize and create value for the sector. Over the last few years, digital has attracted a great deal of attention due to the opportunities that it offers: artificial intelligence, smart objects, drones and robots: proofs of concept are becoming increasingly prevalent. Each of these technological elements adds value to the production cycle:

  • The IoT and active tags. By installing sensors and transmitters on parts, casings, packaging, or tools that rotate through the factory or between sites, or indeed, in storage, traceability can be improved by making it easier to manage inventory, with lead times being reduced from several man days to just a few hours.
  • Drones. These flying machines can be used to inspect industrial buildings or aircraft cabins without scaffolding. With drones that are designed specifically for aviation, Donecle, a start-up, has reduced inspection time to twenty minutes, whereas it typically involves between fifteen and twenty people for a period of six to ten hours.
  • Digital twins. The concept of the digital twin involves subjecting a 3D digital model of an aircraft to the stresses and strains that it will experience in real life, even before a physical prototype even exists. The aim is to be able to observe the behavior of a component under specific conditions and to optimize maintenance activities. This type of innovation can also be applied to the manufacturing process itself, and to the training of operators.
  • Robotic process automation (RPA). These new tools are primarily aimed at simple, repetitive administrative processes such as invoicing or supplies procurement. Robots have the ability to handle operations more efficiently. In industrial manufacturing, “cobots” are also being installed, whereby collaborative robots support employees in carrying out more tiring or complex tasks.
  • 3D printing. 3D printed metallic components are now used in production and are no longer restricted to prototype design. Some 3D-printed components that have been certified by the authorities are even flying in so-called “hot” areas of the aircraft. In April 2017, Boeing certified a titanium structural part, which should fly in 2018, and which will enable savings of $3 million per aircraft (Source: Usine Nouvelle, No. 3519). It is already possible to imagine small, 3D manufacturing hubs that will make it possible to produce spare parts at aircraft using plans that are downloaded from the designer. A benefit of these new business models: less transportation, lower CO2 emissions, lower stock levels, and greater flexibility.
  • 3D vision. Augmented reality can be used to train operators, but also during maintenance phases to identify zones for monitoring and in order to support complex activities. The potential of these tools, over and above certain ergonomic aspects that are still unresolved (wearing a helmet or glasses, for example) is significant, particularly for fault detection, identifying corrections, and recording work actually performed. The impact could be very substantial, particularly in avoiding the “human factor” referenced above.
  • Artificial intelligence. Some people dream of the day when planes will be piloted by artificial intelligence. However, AI is first and foremost designed to exploit the vast volumes of data that are collected during the flight. Analyzing this data should enable aircraft to be used more efficiently throughout their lifecycle as well as developing better predictive models for potential maintenance problems or simply evaluating the risk of quality failures in a critical supplier in the supply chain.
  • Blockchain. This technology makes it possible to digitally exchange, validate and certify documents in a completely secure and non-falsifiable way. Its principle is based on the use of computing capacity that is distributed across multiple parties, each of which holds a part of the code or certification process. In the aeronautical sector, Blockchain could be used to enhance traceability and the quality of documentation in the sector, by enabling each part of the aircraft to be certified, validating particular production stages, or tracing any documentary change back to its source, whatever its nature.
  • Digital platforms and digital continuity. New digital tools are leading to greater integration of solutions and causing industry players to move beyond compartmentalized, silo models. A single data model could be used by a wide variety of partners via collaborative processes orchestrated across a common platform. These platforms would make it possible to create a genuine ecosystem with new functionality and services to improve the value chain and seek out new business opportunities.

Digital is genuinely transformative across the entire organization

It is already possible to see how digital will change everything down to the business models themselves. It will make it possible to perform some tasks simultaneously, or distribute them across a larger number of partners within the ecosystem.

Fabrice Brégier, CEO of Airbus, has said so in a recent interview, talking about big data: “for major changes in aircraft that have already been designed using digital plans, as it is the case with the A350 and other airplanes designed within the last decade, we can save around 25% across the development and production launch cycle. For a new generation aircraft to be launched by 2030, the aim is to achieve savings of between 30% and 50%.”  About digital transformation in manufacturing:These new ways of working generates interactions within the entire entreprise, and our companions are re-installed at the heart of the production system” (Source: Les Echos, 10 June 2017).

Indeed, these technological building blocks will need to be adopted discerningly, with a shared vision and clear commitment and involvement on the part of senior management, for the success of these projects. Managers will need to ensure that they stay abreast of the vast potential that Digital offers.

The required implication of the IT and HR departments

The demand for digital solutions often originates inside business oriented division, but the need to involve the IT department is nonetheless essential. One of the challenges for them, over and above the restrictions related to data protection, is to test these technologies without disturbing normal production feeds or degrading the performance or availability of their information systems. Moreover, the ability of an IT department to monitor technology trends, as well as developing some technological capabilities, and its ability to integrate with multi-disciplinary working groups more quickly than has been the case in the past is key for their contribution to the business. In this context, organizational agility is a key success factor.

The adoption of digital technology also gives rise to genuine questions from employees. Reducing operator fatigue via robotics or IoT necessarily involves the presence of sensors that can retrace their movements in detail, which could generate resentment. Creating new roles such as data analysts, implementing new practices, and launching new services, will require HR support. More fundamentally, the time acceleration and a new kind of relationship with the company’s management mean that the HR department needs to be on high alert to anticipate the upheaval and support the transformations.

From experimentation to large scale deployment

Many customers in the Aeronautical Sector have already shown interest. 3D printing is being deployed, the IoT is highly sought after, and artificial intelligence is currently undergoing a breakthrough. Blockchain is being studied with great attention. The challenge, however, is to successfully move beyond the experimental phase and to achieve genuine economic benefits, with technologies moving beyond the proof of concept stage to be implemented in a large-scale, strategic manner for the benefit of the entire sector.

This process is already underway. However, let’s not forget that this sector designs and builds aircraft which, full of technology, also fly passengers. The moment in which we will fly in airplanes solely and exclusively designed and built with digital technology is still a long way to go. Humans still has big a role to play at the heart of this incredible industry.

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Philippe Armandon

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