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Using Digitization to Reach New Heights at Airbus Helicopters

By Advanced Manufacturing Media

Airbus Helicopters in 2014 began a company-wide transformation prioritizing quality and safety, customer satisfaction and competitiveness. The company is using digitization as one of the main tools to deploy its strategy—namely to improve how the company collects and shares information not only with its customers but also internally.

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A Light Helicopter assembly line worker at Airbus Helicopters uses digital work instructions.

Product lifecycle management (PLM) is a key element in Airbus Helicopters’ strategy, offering digital continuity from the design office to the customer, including via production and support and services.

With a wide range of civil and military helicopters, manufacturing times can range from 600 to 20,000 hours. Lead-times can vary from 3 to 12 months, using anywhere between 4000 and 9000 components.

Before starting its digital shop-floor project in 2014, more than 50 local IT tools were being used independently in the different shop floors found in the company. Paper was being widely used to support the process thus making production data spread out and difficult to analyze.

The target of the project was to digitize the shop-floor information data flow by implementing a manufacturing execution system (MES) to standardize the processes, optimize production costs, reduce lead-time, increase quality level, increase tracking capabilities and provide real-time visibility on production progress.

The main goal for the digital shop-floor project was to enable the collection of production data in real time, the identification of blocking points, the facilitation of communication and the rapid implementation of corrective measures.

To summarize, it addresses a need for a more seamless flow of production operations.

“Digitization is a key enabler of our new industrial model,” said C. Cornille, executive vice president, industry, at Airbus Helicopters. “We are giving our employees the latest technology and this will ultimately provide our customers with faster lead-times and higher quality. This investment will translate into greater customer satisfaction.”

The project began with three pilot cases that represent the different production activities found in Airbus Helicopters: a final assembly line and component assembly in France and elementary parts production in Germany.

Airbus Helicopters chose the Light Helicopter final assembly line for one of the MES pilot cases. It was previously used as a pilot for industrial improvements linked to lean manufacturing principles, such as flow-line manufacturing.

First, the company mapped the existing process—to identify key functions and all of the different paper documents used, such as work orders, technical data sheets and quality folders.

The idea was to keep the same process but to improve and standardize it and make it sustainable. The aim was to ease the life of workshop employees, by facilitating the circulation of information and by easing the management of the various interfaces in their daily routines.

The MES lets workers access technical information, to record information such as serial numbers,  time spent, quality checks performed, and incidents that occurred during the execution of their activities. The workers also gain visibility on the whole line process. All this information allows management to have better visibility in real-time on progress and issues and to consequently launch improvement and/or corrective action plans.

As each worker has all of the necessary documents available at his fingertips on his/her tablet, productivity increases as a result of simply reducing waiting time. For example, a fitter can call an inspector at the end of a task to check the work done just by pressing a button on the screen.

The benefits of MES include not only improved productivity but also  better teamwork, increased motivation and easier management. Each worker has the ability to declare incidents in real-time, and they are then logged and dispatched—and this boosts the feeling of constructively contributing to an improved work environment. Every morning, the teams conduct a stand-up meeting around the Andon visual management boards to go over the unresolved incidents, the status of the associated action plans, and how to go forward for the rest of the shift. These meetings ensure that the entire team has the same level of information. They also facilitate the escalation of issues when necessary and contribute to a positive notion of teamwork on the shop floor.    

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Light Helicopter assembly line workers make use of an Andon visual management board

Digitization has also led to better reactivity of the support functions, such as quality.

The digitization of information has allowed them to improve the non-conformity process and the traceability of data.

The benefits that have been noticed are productivity improvement for white- and blue-collar workers, reduction of nonconformities and reworking, lead time and Work In Progress (WIP) reduction, less printing and fewer local IT tools.

Following the increased productivity from these standardized processes, thanks to the digital tool, the company is looking to deploy the MES tool and associated work routines progressively to all of its production lines worldwide. Airbus Helicopters is currently developing the ecosystem around the digital shop floor by connecting smart tools, such as e-torque, and starting big data analysis.

Edited by Advanced Manufacturing Media, using information provided by Airbus Helicopters.

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