The aerospace industry is an early adopter of smart manufacturing as the transition to what has become known as Industry 4.0, or the “fourth industrial revolution,” takes place.
According to research by Capgemini, 62% of aerospace and defense companies had a smart manufacturing initiative as of March 2017, putting aerospace ahead of not only the automotive sector (50%) but also energy and utilities (42%), consumer goods (40%) and life sciences and pharmaceuticals (37%) in adoption of the digital factory.
Engineering simulation and 3D design software company ANSYS says the use of digital tools will only increase in aerospace manufacturing and maintenance in the coming years. Paolo Colombo, ANSYS’s global industry director for aerospace and defense, says: “We are expecting to see around 40,000 new aircraft delivered to airlines in the next 20 years. To cope with that, you need to manufacture more effectively. Look at the complexity of a single airplane: The Boeing 747 is made of six million parts that must be assembled. We have to find new ways to manufacture aircraft, and Industry 4.0 is helping us to do that.”
Of course, aerospace OEMs have been making extensive use of digital technology to produce new aircraft for decades. A modern aircraft such as the Airbus A350 XWB arguably already employed smart manufacturing. Engineers used Dassault Systemes’ 3D Experience software platform, which enabled the OEM to connect up to 4,000 people during the design and manufacturing process, 85% of whom were in the supply chain. This was a leap forward for Airbus. For previous programs, each Airbus site had had its own digital mock-up, but the absence of constant communication extended design time and led to mistakes, increasing costs.
For the A350 XWB, Airbus engineers deployed Dassault Systemes Enovia, which essentially acts as the infrastructure or the backbone for the digital design and simulation capabilities of the 3D Experience platform, enabling interaction between engineers and management of data, and acting as a central depository and delivery mechanism for the design data for new aircraft. CATIA, Dassault Systemes’ CAD design simulation application, was used for the design because it can cope with the very large assemblies required in an aircraft design—for example, a wing might consist of seven terabytes of data. Simulation software including finite-element analysis was also used, in the form of Dassault Simulia applications that enable designers to understand materials and the stresses on aerospace components.
Dassault Systemes technology also operates with 3D virtual reality (VR) systems via headsets or a cave—an immersive system of projectors—allowing Airbus engineers to visualize components “from within” early in the aircraft design process. Three dimensional design data is readily transferable into VR-compatible models that can be accessed by all engineers working on an aircraft component or assembly. The use of virtual reality also enables effective visualization of how aircraft systems fit together, helping to prove designs before assembly takes place.
Today, the physical and digital worlds are converging even further, generating vast amounts of information but also opening up new vistas for manufacturing and maintenance. In terms of digital tools, ANSYS simulation software has been used by aerospace and automotive companies for many years. “Simulation was suited to the aerospace industry because the product is very complex and safety-critical,” Colombo says. “You cannot afford a failure.” ANSYS software already is being used to optimize the shape of parts that are built using additive manufacturing, allowing reduction of weight and materials while retaining the same level of performance and safety. For example, General Electric is experimenting with printing jet engine nozzles in single parts, cutting weight and component complexity.
Today, reflecting the increasing prominence of Industry 4.0, ANSYS uses the concept of the “digital twin” with its Tier 1 and OEM customers in the aerospace, space and defense industries, with types of simulation carried out including fluid mechanics, embedded software simulation and simulation of structures. “A lot of the companies now exploring simulation are small and medium-sized enterprises, and in the last few years we have been working with and supporting aerospace startups,” adds Colombo. The digital twin doubles as a virtual model of a real-life structure such as an aircraft engine that is collecting data. Many more sensors will be added to aerospace components and will use high-speed connectivity to transmit data in real time to the engineering team.
Modern aircraft generate terabytes of data. If this data is collected, a detailed virtual representation of the engine can be created and its working condition assessed—clearly an enormous benefit when it comes to aircraft maintenance. “This is what we call the digital twin,” says Colombo. “The maintenance data can be correlated with the history of the engine and through a high-fidelity simulation platform to tell you what is going on inside it. You can analyze and improve the way you manage an expensive asset such as an engine to give it a longer life and minimize the time on the ground for the aircraft.”
Engineers and maintenance technicians also will gain greater insight into how the engine works. The Internet of Things (IoT) can potentially provide a real-time data connection to thousands of physical aerospace components so that the digital twin becomes a real-time representation of an aircraft that is actually flying. “This opens up a huge level of opportunity because you can understand how the system is working while flying, and you can predict if it is going to fail—and how.” This entails a simulation platform running a real-time virtual representation of the asset in order to understand its performance, Colombo explains.
Such an undertaking requires new types of technology. For example, new sensors are being designed and manufactured that can withstand the high-temperature operating environment of a jet engine. Highly specialized and safety-critical software code also must be developed. ANSYS provides the tools to design such critical systems and their control codes and is partnering with IoT platforms such as PTC’s Thingworx and General Electric’s Predix, the OEM’s software platform for the collection and analysis of data from industrial machines, to demonstrate the role of ANSYS software in managing the workflow.
In aerospace manufacturing, Industry 4.0 could mean that every single part can be precisely tracked and the data used to continuously optimize the production line with more efficient stock levels thanks to just-in-time delivery of parts.
Ultimately, this digital model could feed back into the digital design process itself—helping to optimize aircraft and aircraft engine design at an early stage. As aircraft engineers design and make parts that are lighter, simulation and other digital technologies will play a key role. “That is one of the key areas for simulation,” notes Colombo. “You can be very confident about cutting safety margins—without cutting safety.”