The Quest for Digital Alignment in Aerospace

In response to challenges, a number of solutions have appeared over the past 30 years to more effectively manage company systems involved in producing complex products and to accelerate their speed to market.

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Naveen Poonian, President, iBASEt CorporationNaveen Poonian, President, iBASEt Corporation

A memorable Superbowl commercial a few years back depicted a crew of mechanics hastily changing the wings on a passenger plane while the aircraft remained aloft, never veering from its established flight path. 

It was a metaphor, of course, for the challenge of managing major change within an ongoing enterprise. But it came frighteningly close to capturing the reality of production management involving sophisticated and highly regulated products such as commercial aircraft, where every element—labor, materials, engineering, technology, design, equipment, processes and more—is costly, subject to constant change and intensive scrutiny—almost always in the face of unforgiving deadlines. These are industry issues sure to contribute to the growing buzz surrounding the upcoming International Paris Air Show in June.

In response to these challenges, a number of solutions—some more comprehensive than others—have appeared over the past 30 years to more effectively manage company systems involved in producing complex products and to accelerate their speed to market. All of those solutions—PLM, ERP, CRM, HRM, PDES and more—are digitally driven. 

Meeting the "Data Challenge" for Improved Manufacturing Visibility

But securing, analyzing and then applying the huge volume of data that offers visibility into the complexity of a sprawling shop floor—an environment which typically faces frequent engineering revisions, widely distributed supply chains, constant process changes, and extensive product customization—and then integrating that information into the production work flow in real time, requires a very high level of digital sophistication and IT investment.   

For many, the ultimate goal—creating a fully automated, end-to-end manufacturing process, where every variable is tracked, controlled, and validated—is the vision behind Manufacturing Execution Systems, or MES. To many, it may seem like a quest for the elusive Universal Field Theory—the Holy Grail of process management. But nobody is there yet—at least not when it comes to complex, high-cost industrial products including most military systems and commercial aircraft. 

Connecting Silos with a ‘Digital Thread’

Investments in point data systems can serve as essential steps toward eventual integration into comprehensive management systems, in addition to generating immediate value. This is why many manufacturers are working to create a ‘digital thread’ consisting of a communication framework that connects the various siloed elements of a company’s manufacturing processes and provides an integrated view of its business assets throughout the manufacturing lifecycle.

It’s also why more and more companies are creating corporate positions that never existed before such as Chief Digital Officer and Vice President of Digital Strategy. Their task is to figure out how to use data strategically to run the business and to integrate the enterprise’s resources throughout a product’s life cycle.

Despite this trend, many major manufacturing organizations remain stuck in the paper age. Take, for example, the case of MRO—goods and equipment used in repair process such as maintenance supplies, spare parts, and consumables—things which are not in themselves the end products of that process. Historically, mechanics have only tracked those items using paper-based systems. But one of the trade-offs has tended to be a loss of traceability into how the asset was changed as a result of being refurbished using MRO materials. In the case of an aircraft, it could easily have undergone two or three significant overhauls within a 10-year period. 

So if, for example, someone discovered that a part was defective and needed to be replaced in a number of different engines, you would need to know which engines actually had that part installed. You need traceability so that whoever is responsible for investigating the issue can confidently make the needed repairs. A robust digital system could be a tremendous help there.

Modernizing Supply Chain Management

Managing supply chains is another area where traditional paper-based systems are commonly used. What typically happens is that directions to a supplier are provided in writing or by email. While that can be satisfactory in a one-to-one supply arrangement, most supply chains are multi-level. So each supplier, in turn, passes the instructions along to their own suppliers using unstructured communication channels. As a result, nobody is sure what standards are being enforced. 

The situation is aggravated by the growth of specialization—an evolution which, in theory, provides customers with greater efficiencies.  But as specialization increases, supply chains lengthen, both internally and externally.  In fact, if national flags were attached to identify the source of each component in a complex system like an airplane, it would look like an Olympic village. Paper-based methodologies only compound the problem, leading to even more delay and confusion, particularly when things keep changing. So implementing digital systems, from start to finish, can help a company secure the visibility and exercise the control measures a diverse group of suppliers requires.

Keeping an Eye on Rising Costs

In the meantime, there are costs—significant costs. Conflicts between design and engineering departments, poorly communicated changes, the discovery of defective parts, keystroke errors resulting from paper-based systems, missed instructions, and silos of data that don’t communicate, are among the inefficiencies that drive the costs of many products through the roof. A plane that should only cost $10 million might end up costing $70 million. And some defects are never corrected until it’s too late.

So there’s plenty of room for improvement. Right now, perhaps 10 percent of the world’s aerospace companies are actually doing a good job of it. The rest rely on various legacy systems and pinpoint solutions that hold them back from becoming what they would be capable of being with the use of more holistic digital approaches to manage their business.

In order for the newest aircraft designs to ultimately take flight, manufacturers will need to re-think their basic processes and begin to take serious steps to modernize.

Naveen Poonian is President of iBASEt, where he drives the company’s overall vision and mission by aligning organizational and departmental objectives. 

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