Digital technology key to future airplane programs

June 14, 2017, © Leeham Co.: Increasing use of digital technology will be one of the stories to watch at the Paris Air Show, says the consulting firm Accenture.

Airbus and Boeing are expanding their use of digital technology. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told Aviation Week digital will be a key role in development of the next new airplane as a way to reduce costs.

Airbus applied digital technology to the A350 development. But its next new airplane will, like Boeing, be the program to really benefit.

Investing in digital technology

John Schmidt, global managing director of Accenture’s Aerospace and Defense practice, said in a recent survey, “98% of the executives we surveyed are investing in digital services.”

John Schmidt. Source: Google images.

This includes building a new building, investing in robotics, finance sales., etc.. Accenture also is seeing evidence of this in aftermarket.

Jeff Wheless, global aerospace and defense lead for Accenture, said digital technology for the aftermarket is good way to frame that aircraft are flying longer, fuel is lower and passenger demand is keeping the fleets flying.

“’How do I use digital to serve existing fleet?’” Wheless asks. The answer is that this enhances forecasting parts demand.

The industry is also “seeing quite a bit of new technology digital technology to feed engines and airframes to be better to operate and produce the aircraft,” he said, point to Boeing’s new use of robotics for building the new wing for the 777X as an example.

Artificial intelligence

Wheless said that the majority of aerospace companies starting to inject Artificial Intelligence into production to get working side-by-side with humans on the

Jeff Wheless. Source: Google images.

production line. Augmented Reality by Airbus in cabin equipment to make sure job is done right the first time and reduce rework, he said.

Union members are sensitive to automation and AI replacing their touch laborers, but Wheless and Schmidt don’t see much in the way of displacement.

“There is a definite shift,” Wheless said, but “it’s not about laying off workers, its working side-by-side with workers. It’s about increasing capacity and quality.”

“I don’t see any huge displacements of workers,” Schmidt said. “The characteristics of workers in industry are shifting. We’re seeing flexible workers and adapting to technologies. We’re seeing increased efficiencies and effectiveness of processes.”

13 Comments on “Digital technology key to future airplane programs

  1. on the same day both Boeing and Airbus CEOs have the very same comment … as I do
    “This is more than excellent … probably … it is way ahead of my old brain understanding capabilities … please explain how it all works in the “next” real world”

  2. Theres no question digital technology will play an increasing part in ground operations. The microsoft hololense is used by JAL aircraft technicians to learn about the layout of new engines. The digital I would like to see is the digitally controlled bleed air system used by the Trent 7000 on the plane we’ve been waiting for – the A330 NEO

  3. Fabrice Bregier had in interview on the subject 2 days ago with Les Echos (the french FT) :
    Google translate is OK

    * he thinks [big data] could offer 30% to 50% gain on development cycles and production beyond 2030
    * predictive maintenance through almost real time data retrieval
    * zero AOG guarantee (nb : in the title the translated “crashes” are for “malfunction”, not aircrash)
    * a worker access an interactive backoffice instead of paper instructions
    * less open innovation than IT firms but small suppliers collaboration
    * ex: local partnerships, big data with Palantir
    * regulations and safety are a high barrier to entry for disruptive new entrants like spaceX : a reusable launcher crash-land is acceptable only without passengers
    * Airbus added value in drones is complex systems integration and safety/ATM knowledge
    * pilotless will come in 20 years, when driverless cars made it socially acceptable
    * Flying as a service (pay by the hour) isn’t Airbus goal, it would be done in partnership with existing financial services
    * C919/MC21 threats? competition with Boeing makes it difficult to enter the market, see Cseries. best protection = tech lead, needing state support
    * order drop not market downturn, challenge now is to satisfy the demand
    * no huge orders at Paris due to huge backlog and no new aircraft

  4. What a totally empty buzz-word. Surprising you didn’t call them out on their bull.

    “Digital” displays have been around for decades.
    “Digital” onboard computers even longer.
    Engine controls? Well, the clue is in the name: FADEC.

    All designs in the last 25+ years have been done with “digital” CAD and CAE packages such as CATIA, NASTRAN, Abaqus, Flowmaster, Fluent, CFX etc etc etc.

    Robotic riveters have been used on assembly lines for over a decade.

    If they had talked about smarter diagnostics so parts can be replaced ahead of failure, I’d pay some attention. But otherwise it just looks like yet another bunch of high level financial consultants that don’t actually know much about what they are talking about.

    • It might be their empty way of saying: “Nothing new to see at this airshow”

    • There’s a lot that can now be done very cheaply that can make a big difference.

      For example you might fit strain gauges all over the airframe, cabin floor, and collect all that data continuously. That might allow different, and hopefully extended, scheduling of checks and less time carrying out the checks themselves.

      How about leak sensors built directly into hydraulic lines?

      Though this does indeed indicate that they’re beginning to run out ideas. The big core advances coming are GTF, RR’s Advance and Ultrafan. After that, what then?

      Despite many concepts for different airframe designs, the good old tube fuselage plus wings plus podded engines is an extremely efficient compromise. There is room for refinement, but as you say that’s largely all done in CAD tools…

      • There has already been talk of the next gen diagnostics including embedded strain gauges. If Boeing did launch MoM now, it *might* have early versions of this included.

        For the hydraulic lines, there will already be sensors on the pumps and at some valves. Isolation would not necessarily be automatic though (certification of such a passive system is a bit of a nightmare unless there is redundancy within the shut off functionality).

        I suppose, in terms of airframes, maybe something like the box wing may work – but it’d be a brave OEM that would commit to seeing it through – or maybe wait and see if there is a potential spin off from the USAF next-gen strategic airlifter.

        • It’ll certainly be interesting to see where and what diagnostics get put in.

          I now wonder though about the value of strain gauges throughout a Carbon Fibre airframe; they’re not supposed to fatigue, crack, or anything unless clonked by something. A few thousand sensors dotted all over the place could report decades of boring, featureless data… Completely different for a metal airframe though.

    • What a totally empty buzz-word. Surprising you didn’t call them out on their bull.

      Or so it would seem.
      Except that behind the approach outlined by Enders and Accenture in the last few days there lies a lot more than just using digital tools, which, as you say, is nothing really new.

      What’s new is the extend to which those tools are used – and what they’re capable of.

      Having a very integrated development and deployment cycle whereby any change that’s made in one department is immediately visible to all other teams that interface with the same component can make a huge difference, as does using data mining approaches (another buzzword, of course) to constantly monitor components and be able to predict necessary maintenance is also a big deal.

      I’m working in IT where, as you would think, everything is of course digital already. But even in IT itself, things are rapidly changing and evolving – just looking at how much more modular and automated the deployment of pretty much everything, from servers to storage to software has become, never mind what kind of analyses can be run these days etc.
      These things do lead to completely different kinds of organisations because they not only enable different ways of structuring tasks and projects, they pretty much necessitate a different structure.

  5. I share some of the sentiments of Darth Avder and admiral prune. Telling stakeholders (governments, young talent, stock holders, suppliers chain) how ambitious & innovative you are. Important, but the company will move ahead anyway.

  6. When looking at digitalisation what do we mean exactly? I understand it has applicability to all aspects of design, development, manufacture and servicing so it has substantial implications throughout the industry.

    I can fully understand the need to consider disruptive technology, the difficulty the incumbents will have is to move materially away from the current processes. There will be massive cost and resistance to change as all parts of the supply chain both within and without the OEMs look at protecting their IP and position.

    Better to address the issue than have the issue addressed by an upstart. I am thinking that the vast complexity of the industry will mean most advances will be piecemeal at the same level of change as aluminium to CFRP or the move to digital FBW

  7. And yet, give me a five seat across (“four turnin”, with rear lounge) Lockheed Electra L188 any day over these modern spam cans!

    • The L188 was the MOM of its day, with the larger Super Constellation above ( which flew with turboprops in 54 as military only) and smaller twins from Convair and Martin below

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