Graham McCall, VP Operations UK, Aras, looks at why aerospace manufacturers have to fully embrace digital transformation to address greater product complexity, as well as compliance, risk and resilience issues.
Faced with increasingly complex products, rapid technological innovation cycles and increasingly stringent regulations, aerospace manufacturers are struggling to keep pace. In the face of these challenges, interdisciplinary product management approaches that address the business of engineering are a must.
With the global fleet of passenger and freight aircraft forecast to more than double by 2037, the aerospace industry is set to boom. Taking the replacement of older models into account, more than 37,000 new aircraft, worth around $5.8 trillion in orders will need to be built in the next 20 years.
Recently, however, the sector has been beset by troubles, including supply chain glitches that have delayed major aircraft programmes, reliability problems with new engine designs, as well as the software issues that have grounded Boeing's 737 MAX planes. These problems have many causes, but are exacerbated by a common theme – complexity.
Take the 737. Its basic design dates back to 1964, but – after more than half a century of development in engines, aerodynamics and control technology – its latest iterations differ from the original in ways those first designers would find difficult to fathom. Further, the data management requirements of modern aircraft are worlds apart from those of their predecessors. While previous generations of aircraft monitored up to 10,000 data points, the latest Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s are monitoring over 100,000 health parameters. These factors create a host of challenges for OEMs.
Traditionally, the development of a given part or product required the input of engineers with select few specialisms. Now, mechanical, software and electronics or electrical engineers, who may be working in different locations all over the world, must collaborate on the same product. All of these engineers must be coordinated, making projects significantly more complex than they used to be.
These complex products also contain subsystems of various kinds which, in most cases, are provided by suppliers. Over time, these suppliers have been given more responsibility for their own designs and, today, are in charge of many critical technologies. Again, these suppliers must be managed and their efforts orchestrated.
OEMS, meanwhile, have to guarantee the safety of their products at all times; people’s lives are at stake, after all. Ensuring safety is tricky when the product is still in development, but it can be especially difficult when field updates are necessary, especially for software.
Finally, it is not just products that are growing in complexity. OEMs must negotiate a maze of laws and regulations to stay in compliance and avoid business-critical risks.
Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems were once considered the perfect solution to all of these problems but these systems have so far failed to deliver. They were meant to provide the means for people to access critical information and work with others in different disciplines throughout the product lifecycle, from design and manufacturing to service and repair.
However, they were designed for a simpler era and are being stretched by the product development processes and requirements of the modern aerospace industry. Indeed, PLM has been criticised for taking too long to implement, being almost impossible to upgrade and, ultimately, too narrowly focused.
According to a survey of companies in the Aerospace & Defence industry undertaken by CIMdata(1), over a third of current PLM implementations have more than three years of development time remaining, and another third have not been upgraded in more than five years. As a result, CIMdata observed that, although the vision of PLM has increased over the last 20 plus years, the value delivered by its implementation has hardly changed.
Perhaps most importantly, PLM systems are overly focused on the science of engineering, making them little more than product data management (PDM) systems for mechanical computer-aided design (CAD) data. Because the legacy providers come from the CAD world, their PLM systems are not optimised for the other processes critical to developing, manufacturing and supporting profitable products – the business of engineering – leaving them disconnected and underserved.
Fortunately, OEMs who are frustrated by legacy PLM systems can take advantage of a new approach – a resilient platform to support product innovation. A resilient platform provides a unified environment that allows all users of product information to collaborate around a single set of processes spanning systems engineering, hardware and software development, variant and option management, part release, manufacturing planning, quality, technical documentation, and programme management.
A resilient platform fulfils four key functions. First, they provide teams with contextual information. This function may sound simple but it is one that legacy PLM systems have struggled to deliver for more than two decades. A resilient platform allow users to work across system and functional boundaries such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), manufacturing execution (MES) and maintenance, repair and operation (MRO), and provides access to mechanical and electronic designs, software, requirements, technical documentation, process plans and quality documents – all of which is impossible with legacy PLM systems owing to their fragmented architectures.
Second, it can be used to ensure that all disciplines and functions are working from the same requirements and systems model.
Third, it enables collaboration between teams to support interactions across functions, across disciplines, and across the extended enterprise with suppliers and partners.
Finally, a resilient platform can manage all phases of the product lifecycle, particularly the evolution of product configurations and the associated changes process. This process can begin as early as the requirements and systems modelling stage, flowing through and eventually providing context for industrial Internet of things (IIoT) data, and supports quality, manufacturing planning and service documentation processes.
With OEMs grappling with legacy processes and systems while they develop and manage complex connected products, digital transformation must become a priority. A resilient platform that is accessible to all producers and consumers of product lifecycle information is fundamental to breaking down barriers and building trust in data, so teams can work together efficiently and effectively to achieve these goals.
(1) CIMdata: Aerospace and Defense Industry, PLM Value Gap Survey, March 2013.