Before harmonizing new technology onto the manufacturing floor, critical steps include determining the business problems to be solved and securing buy-in from all stakeholders, industry leaders said recently during an AeroDef conference panel talk on manufacturing production harmonization. As part of the harmonization process, open standards and open-source software need to be embraced to help offset the costs and reduce the risks associated with proprietary software solutions.
The current revenue model most widely used by software-based technology developers places a recurring burden on small and medium enterprises, said George Barnych, principal at B3 Technical Services. He called it a “proprietary licensing and mandatory annual maintenance fees” approach.
The way to overcome this, he said, is to encourage new technology developers to “install the plumbing at cost or near cost, charge a small license fee to legally maintain IP ownership and earn revenue by providing services.”
Typically, Barnych said, companies will pay for integration assistance until they can staff up and train their own people to become proficient in maintaining such systems. Some companies may find that the services are reasonably priced and outweigh the need to staff up and are perfectly happy to pay for services for specific things they want or need over the long term.
By encouraging the use of open standards and open-source software, industry and government will eventually get to the point of a fully connected supply chain that no longer hesitates to implement new technologies as they become available, he said.
Often, a cultural shift is needed even after open standards and open-source software are embraced.
“How do you get people to trust this new kid on the block,” Plataine CEO Avner Ben-Bassat said. “To gain trust takes time. In addition, there’s the question of the value proposition. The new technology needs to get value—value for the organization, value to the user.”
“Understand that are they going to push back on you when you propose a new technology, when you propose this nebulous AI or machine learning aspect,” said Tara Thomasson, a fellow at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. “It’s a cultural change all of us are going to have to address. Best advice: Put yourself in your stakeholders’ shoes and communicate with them constantly.”
Instead of identifying the business pain, many companies start with the technology, Ben-Bassat said.
“In many cases we ask (our clients) ‘How can we help?’ And they say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure but management told me to do something with this AI thing’,” he said. “Hang on. You are not ready. The number one question is, ‘Have you found a problem that is worth solving?’ For example, are you trying to improve your throughput, your yield on materials, your quality? Then let’s see if this technology or another is suitable to address that.”
Adopting technology is not a contest to see who has the shiniest newest toys first.
“This is not an exercise of coolness,” Ben-Bassat said. “We leave that for the academics. They explore new frontiers and they do amazing stuff. But eventually a manager will have to sign off on this and they’ll ask the usual questions, the same questions they ask for any investment: ‘If I put in X, what am I getting?’ So, if people ask you where to start, figure out your problems and then find the solutions—not the other way around.”
Your company may already have high-tech tools that can make a difference, Thomasson said.
“Before you decide to buy some whiz-bang, multi-million-dollar piece of equipment, you may have things in-house already that can be used to build those long-hanging business cases,” she said.
“There are a lot of things that all of us already have on our floor that we’re just not putting together yet that we can embrace from the IoT perspective. If you have Bluetooth-enabled torque wrenches, you have something right there that you can start looking at. Look for what you already have on your floor—laser scanners, any of that. They have all this data you can digitize and use downstream.”
Gaining trust of users and achieving a cultural shift to embrace technology are important steps.
“It’s not about adding a necessary gadget,” said Andreas Wuellner, general manager for composites, fibers and materials at SGL Carbon. “When you want to implement new technologies, it’s really difficult and involves a lot of changed management. Each plant is different and has a different heritage. Different cultures. It’s important to talk to the people involved about the advantages of what we are doing. This is the most critical step that is often forgotten.”
Don’t expect users to immediately and enthusiastically adopt new technology without education and buy-in. Integrating new technology with internal customers—the production floor manager, supply chain manager and others—is critical for success, Thomasson said.
“Even though you’re going to see lots of cool dashboards, cool software and cool technology, (technology harmonization) is based on change management and a cultural shift,” Thomasson said.
“For example, last week I was in a meeting with a chief architect in our IT group,” Thomasson said. “He made the comment to me: ‘You guys are buying all these edge devices, an IoT platform … I feel like we have a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. All he has seen is the cost and that we’re saying to him to set this up for us. No one had taken the time to go through the use cases that we’ve already identified. (No one had told him.) ‘You are enabling us to pull data from our machines and put it into a data link where those analyses can then take place.”
“If the workforce and the management doesn’t understand what changes even need to be, and what business issue you are trying to address to do it the right way, they are never going to buy in,” she said. “Those people are going to be the naysayers in the meetings. They may not even raise their hands. They may kind of nod in the meeting. But as soon as they walk out the door … they say, ‘Why are we wasting this time?’
“When there’s a facility manager or supply chain manager, a new safety manager that just came on board, you need to make sure you have all your stakeholders from Day One. If you don’t, toward the end of your integration, someone is going to come out and say, ‘I don’t know about this. You guys did not give these requirements, and therefore, I’m stopping you from integrating.’ Until you get those people on board, you’re going to mess up if you go head and plow through.”
Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to educate potential users about the benefits to them of new technology especially if senior management is not ready for a major cultural shift.
“A lot of times, they’re not aware of the things that could be improved or changed,” Barnych said. “You’ve got to address the low-hanging fruit first to motivate people to make the change now. The low-hanging fruit will provide value very quickly while you’re setting the stage for bigger things. They wind up learning what other capabilities exist and tend to grow and improve over time.”
Training and close ties with suppliers also play a starring role.
“Training of operators, our maintenance personnel, and other supporting functions … are essential to safe operation,” said Jeffrey Miller, senior technical fellow, production engineering, commercial airplanes at Boeing. “We find that hands-on training that our suppliers provide to our operators and other folks to frequently be effective. Sometimes, we’ll have our suppliers even stay on site after installation and commissioning to continue to reinforce the safe operation of the equipment, competent operation of the equipment, and to also help us through initial builds of products we may not have produced before.”
Standardized processes to integrate technology can smooth the way. In fact, in aerospace and defense, certain criteria are often required.
“With the integration of new technology, we have tremendous opportunities to improve our safety, our quality and our productivity,” Miller said. “One of the areas that lead you to help (reduce) our integration risk of this technology is to use a number of standardized processes.”
For years, Boeing used the Technology Readiness Level Process originally developed by NASA, he said. More recently, Boeing adopted the “Manufacturing Readiness Level assessment criteria,” which the Department of Defense contractors on the military side have had to do for years.
Boeing also works closely with its equipment and software providers, which significantly lowers the risk of integrating new technology into production and makes integrating with legacy systems easier, he said.
Using digital twins to model the product and the production process at the same time helps Boeing make informed decisions, Miller said.
“We can conduct trades; we can look at options we can look at performance characteristics of these systems prior to committing to them in production,” Miller said. “With that, we also leverage virtual commissioning (which connects the digital twin to PLC programs that drive the actual system in production). Virtual commissioning gives us the ability to do real-time performance assessments of the production assets.
Other Boeing strategies include: using testbeds to verify changes to equipment or software offline to mitigate risks; using accurate 3D models and comprehensive layouts to ensure that new technology will work; thoroughly assessing both the material and people flows.
Harmonizing technology into a classified environment poses a unique set of challenges. Bringing in the security team from the beginning is critical.
“If you start at the beginning before you even design your flow, it will make your life a whole lot easier,” Thomasson said. “If you have equipment on order and then the security guy finds out and says, ‘You have to take that out because we don’t even want it available for someone to flip a switch and turn it on,’ it can cause havoc in your implementation schedule and back up your production schedule.”
Of course, attention to security matters beyond the defense sector.
“This is not just about the defense classification,” Ben-Bassat said. “We see a lot of businesses that are very sensitive about their data and their security. For every type of equipment, hardware, software and process, the answer is to bring in the security experts early on.”