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PLM in Aerospace

High-profile projects help extend PLM technology through the entire aerospace supply chain

By Peter Schmitt
Vice President
Dassault Systèmes
Auburn Hills, MI 


High-profile aircraft programs that highlighted product lifecycle management (PLM) technology's value over the last decade had an unintended side effect: They contributed to the misconception that PLM is only for multinational OEMs and top-tier suppliers with huge stakes in product design. Most aerospace suppliers that concentrate on manufacturing and have relatively little stake in design still don't consider PLM a logical investment.

There are two issues with this mindset. The first is that it isn't entirely true. PLM encompasses manufacturing processes as well as design and collaboration. The second is that by failing to more seriously consider PLM, aerospace manufacturers are shutting themselves out of new revenue streams created by an aircraft development business model that the Boeing Co. (Chicago) pioneered with its 787 Dreamliner program.

It has been well-publicized that Boeing designed the 787 in a 3-D PLM environment. The 787's radical new design prompted Boeing's technology partners to break new ground in PLM technology and, for the first time, integrate manufacturing process planning into the aircraft design process from the very beginning. The manufacturing component was crucial. With design work so decentralized, Boeing needed to know that the 787 would come together as planned without costly late-stage errors. A digital manufacturing environment was the only way to model production processes throughout the early phases of the 787's design.

Those aspects of the story have overshadowed an equally important aspect. The PLM innovations that emerged from the 787 project were spurred by the new business model Boeing developed to design and produce the aircraft. Boeing spread the 787's development costs among its partners in return for a larger share of profits. Suppliers that were once responsible only for manufacturing a Boeing-designed component were now designing it as well. That changed the design cycle's dynamic, and created new opportunities for almost every company in the supply chain. The 787 project's success hinged on keeping internal and external design teams in synch. Boeing chose to do this through a Dassault Systèmes 3-D PLM environment that, for the first time, extended PLM from design through manufacturing and maintenance.   

This leaves aerospace suppliers with two things to consider. The first is that PLM technology is relevant to manufacturing-oriented companies. The second is that it is also their conduit to greater profit. Before they can share in the new business model's benefits, however, aerospace suppliers must revise their understanding of PLM, and how it fits into their future. To do that, they should:

  • examine the aerospace industry's history of technology adoption for context on why migrating toward PLM is a good idea;
  • fully understand what "PLM" means;
  • and evaluate a strong commitment to the technology.

The aerospace industry has been ahead of the design technology adoption curve since the first CAD programs emerged in the 1960s. An aircraft's complexity, operational demands, long service life, and regulatory requirements combine to make advanced design technology mandatory in the aerospace industry.

Adoption in aerospace has followed a pattern similar to that of information technology in other industries. Individual groups and departments adopt the technology of their choice to complete their portion of the design work. This leads to heterogeneous design technology infrastructures comprised of custom and packaged applications running on a variety of hardware and software platforms. With no universal file format, there is no way to unify the various groups' work in a single system. The common link between them is the age-old 2-D drawing on Mylar. When design teams must roll their work together, it usually means printing out 2-D drawings. Production engineers either work from the drawings or re-enter the information into yet another CAD system. This approach survives in every industry—10 years after affordable 3-D CAD came to the desktop.   

Moving away from the oft-mentioned informational "silos" that piecemeal technology adoption created was more complicated in aerospace than in most industries. The amount of data in legacy systems and the sheer sprawl of the aerospace supply chain made porting to a new system expensive and complicated. In addition, with the long service life of aircraft, switching data systems during the aircraft's lifetime doesn't yield enough gain to justify the cost.

Nevertheless, aerospace companies are using new product development initiatives as the impetus to upgrade their design technologies into full-fledged PLM implementations. Definitions of PLM vary, so for this article's purposes, PLM is defined as a software solution that encompasses in one environment all of the design, engineering and collaboration, and business-process management solutions required to bring a product from concept through manufacturing to end of life. The ultimate PLM environment is a virtual 3-D world where engineers, designers, and marketers can interact with the product as though it were a physical object.

Digital manufacturing is the newest component in the PLM universe. Digital manufacturing simulates production processes and manufacturing equipment. It bridges a longstanding gap between design and production technology that has acted as a drag on agility and product quality.

Engineers have been able to virtually render and simulate a product and its components for 20 years—but not the processes for assembling it. CAD applications enabled design engineering to give production engineering true-to-life models of parts and assemblies. Production engineers, however, had to work with the models manually to design tools and production lines. That built inaccuracy into the system.

Digital manufacturing closes that gap by enabling engineers to use part geometries to design tools and lay out production lines virtually. Digital manufacturing solutions let engineers predict major issues, such as a collision on an assembly line, or more subtle issues, such as the ergonomic problems workers could develop from repeating a given movement over a long time. Digital manufacturing gives production engineers what CAD has given design engineers for decades: the ability to see their work perform as a physical object long before it actually is a physical object.

Aerospace companies using digital manufacturing see production efficiency improvements of as much as 20% over conventional production planning processes. It also accelerates the overall product development process, minimizes the risk of parts not being produceable, and helps prevent problems in the assembly process. These gains include a drastic reduction in prototype production—a cost and time savings that OEMs can't ignore.

Boeing and Dassault Aviation (Paris) rolled out aircraft over the last decade that convincingly demonstrated PLM's value. Boeing was the first aerospace company to design an entire aircraft in a virtual 3-D environment. Its 777 airliner was the first aircraft designed without using a single 2-D drawing—only 3-D models. That was Boeing's big departure from the less efficient 2-D world.   

Like Boeing, Dassault Aviation designed its Falcon 7X in a virtual PLM environment that enabled it to finalize the aircraft's design without a physical prototype. That made the design process faster, less expensive, and more agile, because engineers did not have to wait for prototype construction to validate their designs.

Boeing incorporated manufacturing into the 787 development process, modeling all production processes digitally. This was a crucial step in keeping costs down and the program on schedule. So much of the 787 is new that conventional trial-and-error processes for validating its design and planning processes would have generated astronomical costs and increased Boeing's time-to-market substantially. Conventional design processes would have forced Boeing to build physical prototypes and wire them with sensors to validate the design. Each failed design would mean a new prototype, or at least extensively rebuilding existing prototypes. Each rebuild or modification would have set production planning back, as production engineers waited for final specs to design around.

Boeing's PLM solution provided the two capabilities the company needed to control time and costs. The first was a virtual "common ground" where Boeing could simulate the design's behavior and collaborate on solutions. The second was the ability to "manufacture" the 787 in the virtual 3-D environment, to ensure everything came together as planned.

The PLM solution's enterprise collaboration software provided a central repository for all design data from internal Boeing teams and suppliers' teams. Engineers had constant access to one another's work to keep up-to-date on parts and components that directly affected their own. Unlike conventional design processes, where production planning can't begin until the late stages, production engineers could begin planning as soon as design was underway, because they had constant access to all of the current design data. Changes in a virtual environment cost practically nothing, so they could modify their tools and production lines as the 787's design evolved without accruing high costs or wasting effort on plans they wouldn't be able to use.

As much as the 787 was a triumph of PLM as a design technology, the battle over the design aspect of PLM was fought and won long before Boeing officially unveiled the aircraft in 2006. Aerospace companies have known since the 1990s that PLM is an essential design technology. The revelations from the 787 program were that PLM brings tremendous value to manufacturing and can unify the supply chain through the enterprise collaboration environments. Those developments create opportunities for aerospace suppliers that might have been shut out of the PLM movement until now.

When PLM was perceived strictly as a design technology, its value was limited to OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers, where the majority of design work occurs. To companies on the second through fourth tiers, where very little design work occurs and manufacturing is the core business, PLM wasn't relevant. For a lower-tier manufacturer, investing in PLM meant investing in technology that didn't support their core business.

Now that Boeing and its partners demonstrated digital manufacturing's value, however, lower-tier manufacturers have a compelling reason to invest in PLM. The ability to model tools, production lines—and even whole facilities—with digital manufacturing software is as fundamental to a manufacturer as the ability to design a component in 3-D CAD applications is to an OEM. A lower-tier aerospace company that invests in digital manufacturing is buying a technology that will help it operate more efficiently and profitably, regardless of which OEM or Tier 1 supplier it works with.

Collaboration lets the manufacturer see its products as part of the aircraft's overall design, follow changes that might affect its work, and make modifications in-stream. Doing so reduces setup time and cost, and improves quality. Finally, collaboration helps make suppliers more valuable to OEMs and upper-tier suppliers by providing a vehicle for advising them on potential manufacturing issues early in the process, where they can be resolved quickly and inexpensively.   

PLM has a built-in upside for suppliers on every tier. It enables them to profit from a new business model that spreads risks and benefits through the supply chain. In the Boeing-pioneered model, OEMs are, by choice, no longer the exclusive keepers of all knowledge. Suppliers are now value-producing stakeholders. The common ground that unifies them is PLM.


This article was first published in the March 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 3/1/2007

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