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Smart Manufacturing Predictions from Inside the AeroDef Boardroom

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media

Smart manufacturing is transforming A&D manufacturing as more companies adopt automation, artificial intelligence and robotics. Some manufacturers are also focusing on eliminating so-called islands of automation and integrating the technology across entire processes. But even as manufacturers adopt the newest digital technology, many remain focused on developing new materials, and rightly so. Composite materials and materials used in hypersonics remain critical. Also important: ensuring a robust talent pipeline and/or deploying technologies that can mitigate the challenge of worker shortages.

As we all work to emerge from the pandemic, manufacturering managers and workers have become confident in the use of remote technologies; the challenge will be to balance remote and in-person work. Here, we provide access to executive committee members for SME’s AeroDef event. We asked them to provide examples of discussions happening in A&D company boardrooms.

The bottom line: there’s never been a better time to be involved in A&D manufacturing.

Bill Bigot, VP of business development, JR Automation

What lessons, challenges and improvements have emerged from the pandemic?

Bill Bigot, VP of business development, JR Automation

Who knows if the next thing is going to be a pandemic? Any event that causes an undue lack of resources or the inability to properly staff the resources is a challenge. We’re putting our processes through the rigor of verifying that people are getting good at working from home. Unfortunately for manufacturing, almost all of our processes need to be done inside the building. We’re doing a good job in manufacturing of reviewing what’s happening and thinking about how to get by with fewer people.

What challenges is the aerospace industry facing?

It is ramping up production but possibly without the same number of workers or those workers’ skills may have greatly diminished while out of work. There are fewer people willing to take these positions.

Manufacturers are having difficulty meeting the demand they see coming. They also have to find ways to maintain social distance. Eighteen months ago, manufacturers might have had six people in a small cell. Now you can’t do that.

You have to find ways to support people and help them be productive with fewer people working and less interaction.

The way we’re meeting that challenge is with a lot of robotics and automated conveyance systems. In the past, someone might have walked over and grabbed a part. Now that job can be done by a conveyance system.

We’re seeing more collaborative robots (cobots) working with humans in a factory. The pandemic has accelerated that move to produce more with less cost. We’re not trying to eliminate jobs, but to augment jobs and make people doing the jobs more productive.

What are the opportunities in aerospace?

Machines are also getting smarter and able to monitor their own needs for maintenance instead of a human watching the health of the machine. The machine is letting you know, “I’m going to need some maintenance in the next two weeks.” Then, you can schedule that maintenance at a time that’s convenient as opposed to it just happens and the line goes down.

What do you see happening on the other side of the pandemic?

COVID really shook up the whole manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to bring some of these things to the forefront.

Manufacturers are now looking closely at the layout of the path a product takes through the factory—how many human interactions does it have? It is getting a lot of engineering attention.

That’s been talked about for years, but COVID brought it to the forefront. All of a sudden, manufacturers started seeing the inconsistencies and difficulties in their processes stick out like a sore thumb.

Where is automation gaining more traction?

For Tier 3 manufacturers, automation is definitely helpful; we see it a little less in Tier 1 suppliers. Tier 2 is definitely the sweet spot.

Automation really shines when you have high throughput, high volume, lots of variants and lots of potential variability in time and quality.

The larger the parts get, the less variants there are of them. Tier 2 manufacturers make a lot of smaller parts in quantities of hundreds of thousands.

There are over 25,000 nut plates in a Boeing 737. Each nut plates takes three-and-a-half to six minutes to put on. That’s a lot of time putting nut plates on aircraft.

My company is focusing on a product to put a nut plate on in 20 to 30 seconds.

One of the things humans introduce into manufacturing is variability in throughput. Worker A can make 2,000 parts a day while Worker B makes only 1,500.

Humans also get a morning break, a lunch break and PTO days. Robots don’t have those characteristics.

Human involvement in the process is still critical. Humans can supervise automation and improve quality.

What’s next for automation in aerospace defense manufacturing?

Aircraft manufacturing processes have been notoriously manual. Then, people said, “We should automate,” and they built an automation cell as a stand-alone unit. Other processes before and after that cell were still manual. Over time, three or four more cells were converted from manual to automation. Now, we’re always moving from one cell to the next, with each cell designed independently.

Now, manufacturers are looking at how to design a component and the manufacturing process so that automation continues through the whole process. Manufacturers also are working to design smart tooling fixtures to adapt to several steps in the processes and move with the part through assembly.

Now, for example, a cargo door might move in and out of a tooling fixture at each cell. The risk of damage goes up every time you have to touch that part by moving it in and out of the tooling fixture. The smart cell, however, does four things in one cell. Before, the workers understood only the one task in their cell. If one of their colleagues calls in sick, that person is not going to be very good at the other cells. By breaking down islands of automation, you allow for a more flexible workforce. If a person knows how to run a cell and that cell runs three things, now that person’s skill set has gone up. They have the ability to be more flexible and handle more parts of the manufacturing process.

John Russell, chief of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s structures technology branch

What lessons, challenges, and improvements have emerged from the pandemic?

The first month of the pandemic was shaky. Our IT infrastructure hadn’t adapted yet to handle the load. Over the first month, our IT people added tools—Microsoft Teams, a Zoom government account—that allowed us to work on the Air Force network from home.

John Russell, chief of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s structures technology branch

I was really impressed with the ability of our workforce to handle work from home. As we have gotten a handle on all the protocols of working in this environment, we’re getting close to normal.

My big concern is the lack of random hallway conversations and the lack of meetings with external partners. I really hope we’re able to start traveling again. Being able to go to conferences and meet with industrial partners will go a long way to understand what the needs are facing manufacturing.

What challenges is the aerospace industry facing?

Thirty years ago, composite materials were the hot topic. Today it’s AI, quantum computing, name your buzzword in the technology space. That’s where people are and should be making investments.

But it’s our job to also continue to focus on materials and manufacturing. We’re still going to fly airplanes and do our best to make structures lighter, go farther and carry more payload. Composites remain important. People saw the success of composites used in the 787 (which is 50 percent composites by weight). There’s always going to be a need for improved structures.

Where are the opportunities in aerospace?

Right now, the Air Force has many expensive aircraft that cost multi-billions of dollars and are difficult to replace if shot down. We’re thinking about a new class of airplanes that flips the cost equation. Attritable aircraft (a term describing usually unmanned aircraft designed for expendability and significantly fewer flight hours) trade long-term use for drastically reduced costs. We are looking at technologies coming out of the automotive and marine sectors to see if we can use those processes in aerospace. Attritable aircraft cost less, are designed to fly fewer hours, and are easy to replace. One example is the unmanned XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator. Another is the Boeing Loyal Wingman. If they get shot down or break down, they’re easy to replace. We could live with attrition and just build more. This new concept opens the door to a new way of thinking about how you design airplanes. We will need to rethink the certification process based on designing aircraft based on only thousands of hours of payload instead of years and years. If an aircraft is going to fly 40,000 hours, fatigue is going to be an issue. You probably don’t have to worry about an airplane undergoing fatigue if it’s going to fly only 2,000 hours. The aircraft certification program could be more flexible for low-flight-hour airplanes.

What are other transformative and disruptive technology developments?

Applications for topology optimization (designing parts to put load-bearing material only where the load will be carried) are expanding. In the past, topology optimization has focused on small parts. We’re taking that concept and scaling it up to the entire aircraft. Done correctly, this has the potential to dramatically reduce aircraft structural weight. We still have to figure out how to take these different structural layouts and marry them with the practical layout of the airplane. The concept also needs to be manufacturable: the challenge is how to integrate this idea into a real airplane design.

What do you see happening on the other side of the pandemic?

My own workforce is likely to be a mix of in-office and telework. If someone can be effective at home, we can treat them like adults and have them come in only if they have an issue with their computer. Business travel is going to be slow to ramp up, partly because video tools are so much better and also because there will be guidance prioritizing mission-critical travel. We might not see conferences return at full capacity until sometime in 2022. There’s no point in traveling to see your industrial partner if they’re still working from home.

In what parts of aerospace & defense manufacturing is automation gaining more traction?

There are going to be so many more aircraft in production that people are going to be fighting with each other to get skilled labor to come to their facilities. Manufacturers will be thinking about how they can use robots more effectively.

Mick Maher, president of  Maher & Associates, formerly of DARPA and the U.S. Army Research Lab

What lessons, challenges and improvements have emerged from the pandemic?

Mick Maher, president of  Maher & Associates, formerly of DARPA and the U.S. Army Research Lab

One of the challenges was working on all the work and video conferencing platforms—Zoom, Teams, Webex, BlueJeans, Google Meet, Go-to-Meeting—keeping track of where the government was headed with all the meeting software and trying to keep up. When the pandemic first started, there was a scramble about what it was going to do to our business. We looked for new areas to get involved with. One area that we  focused on was expert witness/consulting work to supplement our advanced materials and manufacturing business. We took drastic steps early. Starting in March 2020, we made a hardcore push to get into different, adjacent areas. We expanded into management consulting, armor performance, test programs, proposal development and helping startups. In prior years, we experienced 15 percent growth. During the pandemic, we grew 30 percent, as a result of being panicked and expanding the markets we worked in. Without that expansion, we probably would have experienced a 10-20 percent reduction in revenue. In fact, our traditional consulting areas of our business did regress 10 percent.

What challenges is the aerospace industry facing?

Getting people back in the physical work space. In the beginning with the pandemic, everybody was scrambling to figure out how to work remotely. People got used to working 16-hour days from home, and by mid-pandemic companies seemed to see productivity benefits. Toward the end, people are beginning to burn out a little bit. As we try to go back to work, I think people will prefer a hybrid method with some remote and some in-office time. But you have to do it in a way that’s fair.  Some jobs you have to be there in person. For the people who don’t have the flexibility to work from home, maybe it’s compensation in the form of a reduced workweek, 35 hours instead of 40. Also, young people coming into the workforce have been particularly challenged because they have not had the opportunity to be mentored.

Moving forward, the industry will be challenged  to find the talent they need. I know a lot of students that were taking a year off.  Add this to the universities that were already struggling financially and we have an entire class, maybe several,  where the educational experience and research opportunities has been diminished. We already know that  the bigger schools are seeing enrollment go down even as we come out of the pandemic.

In what parts of aerospace & defense manufacturing is automation gaining more traction?

While things were down and slow, a lot of factories retrofitted. You have a line that’s down: that’s the perfect opportunity to retrofit it versus trying to retrofit the line while your production is running. Manufacturers are anticipating a workforce skills gap, and taking advantage of automation will help bridge the gap.

Where does aerospace/defense manufacturing need to become more agile?

The testing, certification and quality policies. They are very process driven and typically are at the very end—after all of the cost has been incurred for either the design or the component.

The front end of manufacturing has done a really great job of getting things built quicker and responding to changes. When you get to the testing and quality assurance at the end, you haven’t seen the efficiency that exists at the beginning and middle of the process. The testing community is just beginning to take advantage of the computational tools, models and simulations that help with faster throughput and lower costs.

What do you see happening on the other side of the pandemic?

As we come out of the pandemic, I think we’re poised for greater growth. There are a lot of things that drive growth, including government policy. My concern is that, depending on the policies that get passed, growth could be stymied. Tax policy is going to be an issue. I worry about inflation affecting business moving forward. The way that we bring new people on board, is that going to change? Are there going to be regulations imposed on business that hamper our ability to function?

Leslie Cohen, a leader in the use of composites in aerospace, now senior advisor at Maher & Associates, and formerly with McDonnell Douglas and HITCO.

What lessons/challenges/improvements emerged from the pandemic?

Leslie Cohen, a leader in the use of composites in aerospace, now senior advisor at Maher & Associates, and formerly with McDonnell Douglas and HITCO.

Many companies went on reduced work weeks and shut down. That is an ongoing issue in the supply chain for tier ones and OEMs that are trying to deliver hardware. Now that we are re-emerging and going back to work slowly, there are going to be startup hiccups. We have to set our build rates in a manner that recognizes this. It’s almost like making your first article. We also have to recognize that many of our suppliers went out of business because they couldn’t survive the economic reality of staying in existence with little or no business. We’re going to have a supply chain that’s been damaged. Other challenges include the need for better elastomeric materials and seals within additive manufacturing, the need for more quick-curing film and/or pressure sensitive adhesives with resistance to aircraft fluids and better bonding to cleaned surfaces, high temperature wear coatings, and coating that are resistant to non-silicone-based diethylene glycol monomethyl ether (DiEGME).

Where are the opportunities in aerospace?

Materials involved in hypersonics. We need to ensure we can intercept hypersonic threats coming from other nations and kill/intercept/destroy those threats. Those threats may be coming at us at Mach 5. Because of those speeds, we need to develop more materials that can hold together at higher temperatures and pressures. We have a lot of materials to choose from until we get up to 2,500 F. Then it’s more limited up to 5,000 F. We need to put more effort in developing materials technology for those higher temperatures. We need to invest in ultra high-temperature ceramics. But not too many companies can do that work.

Other opportunities include vacuum bagging to reduce touch labor and manufacturing variability, out-of-autoclave heating for heating complex parts, automated tape and fiber placement machines to enhance productivity, and virtual factory techniques including digital inspection.

Where does aerospace & defense manufacturing need to become more agile?

Cutting inspection time while retaining quality assurance. Inspecting a high-performance wing for a military airplane might take a Level 2 technician eight to 10 hours and a Level 3 technician another 8 to 10 hours to interpret the results. You’re dealing with 5 percent of the cost. The federal government is investing in technology to do automatic defect recognition. A Texas company, TRI-Austin, is developing software modeling that inspects an airplane wing in 10 to 12 minutes. In one test involving 160 wings, the modeling software inspected a wing in five to 10 minutes. The digital twin concluded that most of the wing was fine but identified one problem in an upper right corner beyond its capabilities and recommended that a Level 3 technician check out the issue. Results were identical to the human inspection but shaved 80 percent off the time. That cuts the cost in half.

Kelly Dodds, Advanced Manufacturing Tech Director, Raytheon Space and Airborne  Systems

What lessons, challenges, and improvements have emerged from the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit, we were completing a merger with United Technologies Corp, and I was in the trenches with leadership.

Kelly Dodds, Advanced Manufacturing Tech Director, Raytheon Space and Airborne  Systems

What I observed was incredible. As an industry, we adapted in incredible ways to maintain productivity and output to our customers during COVID. Industry is now accelerating out of the depths of the pandemic with new tools, new efficiencies, and new methods learned during the pandemic.

We developed new technology, new processes and new procedures. We’ve changed how we’re going to work in the future with remote working and dealing with COVID. We were thrust into the Zoom world.

Industry figured out how to deal with COVID with procedures like temperature scanning and social distancing. The COVID-driven move to flexible work will enable the aerospace industry to tap into geographically more diverse talent pools, previously not accessible, and give many of our current employees the flexibility they need to better enable their work/life activities.

Where are the opportunities in aerospace & defense?

The pace of innovating and building products to meet customer demand is picking up speed.

On the defense side, I think we are accelerating the pace of innovating and fielding products, to assure we are providing customer capabilities at the speed of relevance.

In my 20 years in the aerospace and defense industry, I’ve never seen more focus on advancing the way we engineer, develop and manufacture products.

This change is to meet the needs of our customers, as well as for competitive efficiencies and shareholder value.

Digital transformation of engineering and the digital and automation aspects of Industry 4.0 are transforming how products get designed and transitioned to prototyping and manufacturing. 

What challenges does the aerospace & defense industry face?

Since my focus is on Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing, I’ll say the pipeline and development of talent in the technical fields of manufacturing is a critical effort that we should all be rallied around.

How do you create the next generation of manufacturing technical and engineering talent?

We’re working to develop that talent pipeline so that five, 10, 20 years down the road we have a robust manufacturing science and engineering pipeline, in addition to developing frontline skills in the factory.

Innovation and change doesn’t come from machines; it comes from people. 

Cybersecurity is another challenge. Anytime you mention the word digital, you had better mention the word cybersecurity.

The attack surface created by each device and the rapid growth and implementation of connected devices pose a challenge.

We need robust cybersecurity that protects critical elements but also cybersecurity technology, architecture, human processes, and methodologies that enable rapid innovation and time to value.

Companies simultaneously have to be able to leverage connected devices, move fast, and stay protected.

What transformative/disruptive developments are underway?

Five years ago, when I took my position in advanced manufacturing, digital engineering, digital thread and Industry 4.0 were aspirational buzzwords on the fringe of technologist conversations.

Today we have a corporate organization named Industry 4.0.

The already rapid pace of digital advances is accelerating. COVID and the new work environment will change the nature of social and communication networks—some created, some lost, some strengthened.

It will be important to harness the benefits that augment innovation while minimizing any headwinds to innovation, both using technology methods and tools and human/social considerations.

What areas are emerging as agile and flexible, and what areas need to become more so?

Once we connect manufacturing devices and they’re easy to connect securely, we have to get to that point where the factory floor is a smart ecosystem—with easily connected, cybersecure devices like your smart home but far more secure—so that it’s not a niche skil set doing all the custom implementation work.

We need to democratize the ability to innovate with Industry 4.0.

What do you see happening on the other side of the pandemic turbulence?

We re-enter the new normal with a much-diversified work environment and a new toolset for working together, and we accelerate out of the pandemic with these new tools, efficiencies and methods to meet the market demand.

In what parts of aerospace & defense manufacturing is automation gaining more traction?

The merging of Industry 4.0 and digital engineering with proven manufacturing philosophies and techniques, such as lean manufacturing, is transforming the manufacturing landscape.

The factory floor has become a system of cyber-physical systems: It’s hard to discuss physical without the digital and vice versa. As the cost of custom automation comes down and the ability to engineer those solutions rapidly increases, we will see more and more implementation in areas that previously would have yielded no ROI, and therefore have not yet been considered for digital or physical automation.

Any final thoughts?

In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a better time to be in aerospace defense manufacturing. The combination of the technology, the products, the pipeline of new talent, the need and the focus on creating a unique expertise in manufacturing. Going back more than 20 years, to when I was in school, the disciplines known to most students were the typical mechanical and electrical engineering. Now there are many manufacturing related STEM programs, and the list is growing. This growth is critical to support the future of manufacturing. All of those programs have grown and become more sophisticated and more visible. A key development in curriculum is a multi-disciplinary approach looking at digital, electrical, physical, controls and robotics, all of that in the context of building stuff—the stuff of manufacturing.

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