There is a digital revolution taking place in factories, where the lines between the physical and digital are becoming blurred. This revolution has been labelled the transformation to Industry 4.0, but there remains confusion about what exactly it is and how it can support MRO services.
Industry 4.0 is really an umbrella term for a number of transformational technologies reaching maturity at the same time. Robotics and artificial intelligence, sensors, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, mobile devices, wearables and additive manufacturing – all these innovations have the potential to come together to develop what is being called the “smart factory”.
The development of the smart factory has the potential to really benefit the MRO sector; at a time when the growth of the aerospace sector and subsequent increasing demand on manufacturers has exacerbated the need for the sector to improve its operational efficiency, time to market and proficiency.
The growth of predictive maintenance, such as the use of sensors and the Internet of Things to allow aircraft components to be replaced before visible defects appear, provides a pertinent example of how conventional working practices around MRO can be transformed by the smart factory.
At the heart of the smart factory is the integration of technologies. The connected enterprise utilises technology advances, such as data analytics from big data and remote monitoring, to help factories to increase productivity, create a secure environment and maintain safe operations. The development of embedded software and intelligent devices in products and factory infrastructure therefore increases automation and allows for better control and optimisation of MRO processes.
Although it is an ambitious goal, manufacturers today can improve profitability and customer delivery if different components in the hangar are integrated in real-time with the MRO providers’ ‘shop floor’ system; whereby operations could react and adapt to unforeseen market changes such as a cancellation, a modification or a rush of an order.
The importance of data in the MRO industry cannot be underestimated, it provides valuable knowledge which can consequently support informed decisions and create a competitive advantage. In the factory of the future, the data-driven decision-making process can be improved by establishing an optimised data backbone across functions and domains; strengthening the bridge between manufacturing and operations and MRO by leveraging machine learning and trusted data.
Visualisation also helps to create this seamless and agile MRO ecosystem. For example, virtual 3D validation helps to reduce operational and design errors by testing the product or process and by running simulations, all prior to committing to physical prototypes. This further reduces the operational costs and time to market for the aircraft manufacturers and their supply chain. Tata Technologies works with its clients to develop the factory library, a digital representation of the whole factory layout which can be monitored and modified to help optimise operations.
With such advancements in technology it is easy to see how manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. The evolution towards Industry 4.0 should be seen today as an industry upgrade for the MRO sector, an aggregation of existing technologies as opposed to a complex concept too difficult to understand and adopt. Much of the progress associated with Industry 4.0 is in fact readily accessible today and significant steps can be made by embracing ‘Industry 3.x.’ This is
the progressive upgrade of the manufacturing environment: using ‘here and now’ technologies, providing the opportunities to immediately improve the optimisation of operations.
The technology should be the enabler, not the destination. This is the smart approach to capitalise on the changes and opportunities that the digital revolution is bringing about and develop your own factory of the future.
Tim Goodhead is vice president, aerospace and defence - Europe at Tata Technologies.