Industry 4.0 in aviation

Smart manufacturing in the aviation industry.

05.2016 | Text: Silke Hansen

Silke Hansen writes for AEROREPORT as a free­lance journalist. For over ten years, she has covered the world of aviation focusing on tech­nology, innovation and the market. Corporate respon­sibility reporting is another of her specialty areas.

Everybody’s talking about it—the Germans, the Americans and even the Chinese. In Germany they call it industry 4.0, in English-speaking countries they call it connected industry or the internet of things. For the aviation industry, it spells change as well. But what exactly is it?

“It’s actually quite hard to define connected industry since the term has been used in such a wide­spread and often highly vague manner. Suddenly everything is tagged 4.0—work, logistics, everything,” explains Tobias Strölin from the Fraunhofer ­Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart. Strölin prefers to talk of a “digitalization of value creation” and advises that “each company must define connected industry for itself.” Already ubiquitous in our personal lives, the internet is coming to manu­facturing. Our economies and societies are becoming more and more digitalized, and that is changing the way we work and the way we manu­facture. In the future, experts expect that people, machines, plants, logistics and products will be able to connect with one another in real time. Production will become largely autonomous—flexible, efficient and in line with the desires of the individual customer. The result is the smart factory, the text­book example of connected industry.

That this is possible in the first place is thanks to the latest information tech­nology and new capa­bilities when it comes to processing data: increased storage capacity, higher speeds, a more compact size and better sensors. Meanwhile, huge advances in artificial intel­ligence have meant that light­weight robots are now available on the market for a compara­tively reasonable price.

The basis of the forward-looking internet of things is techno­logy that relies on what are known as cyber-physical systems, in which products and the means of production can communicate with one another and be connected together in a flexible way. “It’s like giving a component legs,” says Strölin. Using RFID technology based on electro­magnetic fields, the component is able to identify itself and how it is to be processed, and make contact with the production facility. This facility then autonomously decides what is to be done and in what order. After the steam engine, assembly line, electronics and IT, could this really be the new fourth industrial revolution? A vision of the future?

(strich: Automated loading) In blisk production, the machine adapts itself to the component it is about to process. Hover over the image for a bigger view

Automated loading In blisk production, the machine adapts itself to the component it is about to process.


Automated loading In blisk production, the machine adapts itself to the component it is about to process.

(strich: Better than the human eye) The quality assurance processes in the blisk manufacturing facility are supported by computer-controlled optical measuring systems. Hover over the image for a bigger view

Better than the human eye The quality assurance processes in the blisk manufacturing facility are supported by computer-controlled optical measuring systems.


Better than the human eye The quality assurance processes in the blisk manufacturing facility are supported by computer-controlled optical measuring systems.

Aviation plays by its own rules

“We in the aviation industry are still at the beginning of the road to connected industry. At the MTU location in Munich, we have operated two partially auto­mated assembly lines for a number of years now, and we’re taking that a step further with our largely auto­nomous, digi­talized blisk production center,” says Richard Maier, head of pro­duction develop­ment at engine manu­facturer MTU Aero Engines. Other sectors such as the auto­motive industry are already at a more advanced stage. Even so, taken as a whole, the digi­talization of industrial pro­duction is still in its infancy; aside from a few specific applications, the first demonstrators, or demo-labs, open their doors at univer­sities and research institutes. “In five years’ time, at the end of the testing phase, we expect to see the first competitive advantages, followed by the first smart factories in ten to twenty years’ time,” calculates Strölin.

Nevertheless, manufacturing in the aviation industry operates by its own rules, and the smart factory concept is limited in terms of its trans­ferability to this sector. To compare, Airbus produces 2.5 aircraft a day—while an auto­motive manu­facturer can produce several thousand vehicles. “It’s still series pro­duction, but in far smaller quantities. It’s a far cry from mass pro­duction,” says Maier. He also points out that the technical demands placed on individual components are increasing all the time—meaning more and more pro­cesses to be executed, preferably in as integrated a manner as possible. As products become more complex, manufacturing them becomes harder. Stable processes are critical, says Maier. In the aviation industry, a lot is still done by individual manu­facture. “We can’t just automate at any price,” says Maier. Never­theless, automation in engine production is becoming increasingly worthwhile with the introduction of new families of components. This means applying a family concept to a core engine so that it can be scaled for multiple applications. The best example of this is the new PW1000G PurePower® Geared Turbofan™ engine family, which caters to five air­craft manu­facturers and their model ranges. As a result, parts are highly comparable and can be manu­factured in high volumes. MTU Aero Engines itself manu­factures compressor blisks one of the company’s special areas of expertise for the PW1000G family. These high-tech components, compressor stages produced in a single piece, are manu­factured in a newly built production hall that features a high level of auto­mation and a smart management system. It is the world’s most up-to-date production facility for engine components of this type.

Kollege RoboterNoch ungewöhnlich in der Luftfahrtindustrie: Airbus testet in Entwicklungslabors Roboter in der Fertigung.

Interaction: Automated blisk production

Automated blisk production

Blisks for the Pratt & Whitney GTF™ Engine Family are produced in a new and highly automated manufacturing hall. To the interaction ...

Digitalization as a catalyst

“There’s a great deal of potential for the aviation industry,” says Maier about connected industry. The sector must remain competitive in the face of cost pressure, particularly in high-wage countries. Tom Enders, CEO of the Airbus Group, which has pro­duction locations in France and Germany, is calling for the industry “to make use of the opportunities of the digital revolution. That means ensuring that the design, develop­ment and manu­facture of our products become significantly faster and more efficient as well.” The European aircraft manu­facturer is working on a factory of the future, in which it tests new manu­facturing techniques and integrates them step by step: virtual develop­ment worlds for new air­craft, advanced digital tech­nologies for the shop floor, a new generation of robots that works alongside people on the assembly line as well as additive manu­facturing. Airbus is picking up the tempo. In its factory of the future, the assembly line will see the greatest increase in auto­mation, where smart robots execute strenuous or repetitive tasks. In 2015, Airbus delivered 635 aircraft a new record. The company’s order books are full to bursting and it is setting its sights on increasing its production rates still further—up to 60 aircraft a month for its bestseller, the A320neo.

“Connected industry provides the foundation for a systematic learning process. It’s about learning from data and continuously optimizing pro­cesses. The internet of things will help us make complex pro­cesses more manageable—and that applies to the aviation industry as well,” says Dr.-Ing Christina Reuter from the Department of Production Engineering at RWTH Aachen University. According to the predictions of a Europe-­wide study conducted on behalf of the Federation of German Industry, the digi­talization of aero­space engineering will contribute ten billion euros a year of gross added value from 2025 onwards. It estimates that the industry will experience a digital revolution as part of a third wave—following the first waves in the auto­motive industry and logistics business.

Done, and on to the next one Finished components are auto­matically collected from the machine, which can then immediately start work on the next workpiece.

Interview with Tobias Strölin, Fraunhofer Institute

Mr. Strölin from the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO provides his opinion on the topic: Are tablets finding their way into manufacturing?

In the eyes of the experts, the hurdles for the aviation industry are more regulatory than they are technical. Increased connectivity means a higher risk of cyber attacks—something to which the aerospace industry, with its extremely stringent security regulations, is particularly sensitive. All the same, IT security is the big challenge for all connected industry applications. Cars that drive themselves have long been tech­nologically feasible, but while they do reduce the risk of accident, they bring new risks with regard to data security. “We have to find a reliable way to protect data from unqualified or unauthorized access,” agrees Maier.

While there are still hurdles to be overcome, Strölin remains confident. “In ten years’ time, we won’t even be talking about it, as digi­talization will be here.” We can expect the gain to be considerable: according to calculations by McKinsey, factories stand to benefit the most from smart connectivity in an internet of things—up to 3.7 billion dollars of added economic value worldwide in 2025.

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