The BAE Systems factory in the North West of England has been assembling military aircraft for more than half a century, including the Eurofighter Typhoon. And today, a former hangar at the sprawling site has been transformed into a test bed for efforts to build the next generation of combat aircraft.
Britain’s defense champion has set up a ‘factory of the future’ in Warton, Lancashire, to experiment with robots and advanced manufacturing techniques to make test structures for the Tempest – a fighter jet for the Royal Air Force Force which should take off from 2035. .
The project is still in its design phase, but the challenge for the companies involved – including the aero-engine group Rolls-Royce, the British branch of Italian Leonardo, the engineer Siemens and dozens of small suppliers – is to develop and build a fighter aircraft in about half the time of previous programs.
Achieving this will require a “radical change” in the design and manufacture of fighter jets, says Dave Holmes, BAE’s chief technology and manufacturing officer.
Increased levels of automation will be essential. Using a “digital thread” from concept engineering through manufacturing will provide real-time data and visibility as work progresses. “It’s not available on anything we’ve done before,” says Holmes.
At one end of the factory, engineers are about to complete a demonstration model of the plane’s forward fuselage using new robotic technology. BAE and its partners used off-the-shelf robots but increased their precision tenfold to help build the prototype. When completed, the forward fuselage will mark an “important stepping stone,” says Holmes.
The trial, according to Holmes, aims to answer the following question: “Can we all work with the same digital data, can you use robots that achieve the precision you need, can you capture the DNA of each activity all the time?
BAE’s factory is typical of efforts around the world to imagine what the factory of the future will look like. Whether it’s robotics or 3D printing, the goal is to make manufacturing processes more efficient, less energy-consuming and less expensive.
The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the trend towards automation and greater digitalization, as companies have realized they cannot always rely on employees being on the shop floor.
Ben Morgan – research director at the University of Sheffield’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing Research, who has worked closely with BAE on its factory – points to the UK’s success in rapidly developing NHS ventilators as an example of what can be achieved. An industrial consortium of companies managed to “manufacture ten years of ventilators in just ten weeks”, he notes.
Overall, the Covid-19 crisis has “accelerated people’s thinking about digitalization,” says Morgan. Rather than people “thinking about it, they had to do it”, he adds – citing the use of simulation to map shop floor processes, so people can be socially distanced, as a key example.
Mark Maybury, Chief Technology Officer at Stanley Black & Decker, the American manufacturer of industrial tools and safety products, also turned to technology at the start of the crisis. Maybury developed a “digital dashboard” for the company’s various sites that showed which employees were sick, which weren’t and what the current risk level was.
The company also deployed smart sensors in its factories that alerted workers if they got too close to others during the height of the crisis.
Automated factories will generate large volumes of data. For many, the ultimate goal is to connect everything – robots, sensors and other factory equipment – so that every step of the manufacturing process can be closely monitored. The result is that engineers will be able to change tools or processes as they go, allowing for greater efficiency.
In an ideal world, companies would connect to customer systems to anticipate demand and automatically adjust production. This could create transparent manufacturing and potentially allow processes to be advantageously scheduled at certain times, for example, when energy is cheaper.
In the UK, AMRC engineers are leading an initiative called 5G Factory of the Future to test next-generation wireless connectivity in manufacturing. The goal, says Morgan, is to capture data and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to move “from hindsight to developing insight and ultimately foresight.”
“We want to be able to predict what will happen in a process before it happens or before a tool breaks down or a robot goes down a path we don’t want it to go down. “, he explains.
A more agile way of working will also allow companies to test designs and modify them as they go along, reducing the qualification or certification time needed to get products out to customers.
Despite fears that increased automation will destroy jobs, many manufacturers are emerging from the pandemic warning of a shortage of skilled workers. A report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute last year found that the pandemic has made skills shortages worse. He estimated that the skills gap in US manufacturing could leave as many as 2.1 million jobs unfilled by 2030.
Leaders admit that some manual jobs will most likely disappear by 2050, but more technicians, data scientists and engineers will be needed as new technologies develop.
Stanley Black & Decker’s Maybury insists there is “real potential” in the use of automation. Manufacturers, he says, will not only have to rethink their factories, but also their jobs. This will require ensuring people learn the right kind of skills, such as robotic welding and advanced analytics.
“Our vision is that we want operators to work with robots, maintain them, design and engineer them, and ultimately oversee human and robotic teams,” he says.