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Ensuring it’s all plane sailing for aerospace supply chains

Posted 20 May 2018

Look to the skies in the UK and if you can see an unobstructed blue canvas for more than five minutes, without an aircraft passing overhead, buy a lottery ticket. The UK aerospace industry is booming. In fact, it’s the largest in Europe and second only to the US, with its trade association, ADS Group, reporting sales in the sector of £31.8bn last year – up 8% on the previous 12-month period1.

Why the boom?

The worldwide economy is growing and there are now more economically empowered people travelling more frequently. This scenario of course places massive pressure on Airlines and their supply chain to continue expanding and upgrading fleets to cope with this burgeoning demand. Testimony of this is the fact that Boeing is predicting growth to $5.2tn of aircraft orders over the next 20 years.

Sounds simple enough but it’s not, because, as always, such exponential growth doesn’t come without its associated growing pains. Aerospace OEMs are scrambling to meet this dramatically rising global demand head on – but they are having to do this unsafe in the knowledge that their supply chains are most certainly not equipped to take the strain. In fact, there are so many associated challenges facing UK aerospace and defence industries at present that it’s becoming harder for manufacturers to see the wood for the trees.

The challenge landscape is looking ever broader

With a need to reduce time to market by ~40% to keep up with demand, deep supply chains, and a decades-long after-market, aerospace organisations are most certainly facing a wide variety of challenges ranging from multi-level supply chain visibility to supply authentication, certification of people and components, and beyond.

China is doing things faster, cheaper and seemingly better than the rest of the world, forcing others to play catch up, in a hurry. But how can those organisations really do it quicker when they have to keep a constant eye on stringent certification standards to ensure that their products are safe and reliable, yet still cost-effective? And that’s just for starters. Probably the biggest issue is not being able to keep a finger on the pulse of their supply chains when so many OEMs have outsourced elements in the manufacturing process.

A more distributed manufacturing environment has created a supply chain that is far more complex than ever before in multiple dimensions – cross-company, cross-industry, cross-border, cross-culture, etc., leaving some suppliers with more questions than answers.

Making molehills out of mountains

However, as proven by the Wright brothers in 1903, with the right technology and a large degree of brainpower, these challenges can be easily overcome. Aircraft OEMs and tier one suppliers need to follow the trail blazed by the automotive industry and lay down a robust base to meet rising demand by developing closer and more collaborative relationships throughout the supply chain, encompassing all tiers of supplier.

This means sharing tools and techniques, and taking a more proactive, open and common approach to risks. Easier said than done as there remains a cultural barrier and as such a legacy in the aerospace industry where most manufacturers would rather keep their cards close to their chest than share low risk data that would be mutually beneficial to all parties involved. Okay it’s often easy to blame OEMs and tier ones for this, but the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) is perfectly placed to convene the industry to identify low risk opportunities for collaboration that will start to change the culture of the industry.

As a starter for ten, there are a number of innovators developing solutions that can provide supply chain visibility, allowing prediction of supply and demand that would help all tiers of the aerospace supply chain. One of these is Valuechain who provide smart manufacturing software that helps organisations to improve productivity, streamline collaboration and generate intelligence.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is making for a connected supply chain

IoT allows for the analysis, cross-referencing, and application of collected data faster than ever thought possible. In the aerospace industry it is being used to offer better operation and control, material management, staff and passenger information management, data analytics, and more importantly in this instance; inventory and operations planning, manufacturing and supply chain optimisation. IoT technologies are a logical enabling technology, assuming we change the attitude about collaboration. Using IoT devices, aerospace manufacturers can connect products and assets together to enable dynamic scheduling and flexible factory automation, where multiple products can be managed through the same factory, or across the entire supply chain.

New levels of connectivity such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), 5G and Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) offer the breadth of solutions from real-time, low latency data transactions between machines, to wide ranging asset tracking and condition monitoring solutions. Looking through this new lens, it’s not too difficult to see how easy it is to gather data for just about any application and there are many IoT analytics platforms that exist to drive value out of it.

Through our Just in Time project, Digital Catapult is working with Airbus and DFKI to deploy IoT solutions that provide workers with personalised workplace support using AI-based services. It supports on-the-spot problem solving through smart step-by-step instructions that react to the workers’ actions. Microlearning is provided just-in-time fitting to a situation. The system uses sensor data collected during the work processes through advanced future networks to detect potential problems and skill gaps.

Taking a leaf out of the book of Bitcoin

Aside from finance, Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) is starting to really gain traction in major industries such as music, energy and gaming, and now aerospace. Today it is already seen as the great enabler to address specific aerospace and defence industry challenges by supporting secure collaboration, and process coordination across OEMs, suppliers, and operators.

With the widespread application of parts pooling both within an airline’s own fleet and as part of wider pooling programmes, DLT would ease the back-office burdens of maintaining compliance with reporting requirements for lessors and owners in respect of the temporary and permanent replacement of parts. It may also simplify the management of a wider parts pool and provide users with a shared validated point of information on availability and timings.

Use of the words ‘would’ and ‘may’ above would probably lead many to believe that the use of DLT in the aerospace industry is a bit of a pipe dream at present, but it most certainly is not. There are already many use cases for using DLT in its digital transformation efforts and range from creating a hardened and traceable supply chain that supports secure collaboration and process coordination across OEMs, to optimising maintenance, certifying personnel, monitoring training logs, licensing of IP, and beyond.

According to Aviation Today, James Kornberg, director of innovation of Air France KLM said of Distributed Ledger Technology uptake, “In the aviation industry we still have a lot of our data that is not digitised, still a lot of analogue data, the first step, and that’s what we’re doing at the moment is going to a fully digital solution on all the supply chain and all the aviation data that we get.”

It’s a case of adapt or die

Transforming a diverse, highly competitive and bureaucratic industry like aerospace will not be easy, but we now have the digital transformation technologies to hand to begin to build this future. Our hope is that multiple industry players can pull together to produce collaborative small scale experimental deployments of idealised systems and use this vision to alleviate corporate inertia.

The ATI (last year) published an INSIGHT paper on Digital Transformation; exploring the potential for digital transformation in aerospace and examining the maturity of the UK aerospace sector’s digital capability. The paper has been informed by surveys of, and interviews with, industry leaders (both internal and external to the sector) conducted by the ATI. The paper also includes a digital framework representing the possibilities of digital technologies. The framework enables companies to assess where they are on the digital journey and their direction of travel.

In fact, underlining the relevance and impact of the ATI’s research and the growing necessity for end-to-end digital transformation of the aerospace industry, Digital Catapult has already begun discussions with major aerospace suppliers to help them explore digitisation of their internal processes through the use of IoT, Distributed Ledger Technologies, Virtual Reality, and Machine Learning. Results of that engagement will be forthcoming at a later stage.

This blog was first published by the Aerospace Technology Institute

Source: 1Telegraph: How big is the UK Aerospace Industry