Cloud will transform aerospace, eventually

The cloud computing model of service-based IT delivery is steadily being engineered into the manufacturing and operational fabric of the aerospace industry. This of course means that the opportunities for witty and quirky press headlines are almost limitless. Aerospace industry up in the clouds. Plane engineers soar to new heights with IT… and so on.

Except there’s a problem. Because none of this will happen overnight.

The reality

“If you look aircraft production plants perhaps 50 years ago, the facilities look remarkably the same as they do today,” says Jens Graffs, vice president of assembly and installation at Airbus. “Manual labour dominates the production line and workers need to be highly skilled.”

For Airbus or any aerospace engineering firm to start moving towards more use of software automation, machine-to-machine communication controls, internet of things devices and sensors, data analytics and flexible IT consumption – all the attractive elements offered by cloud – there is a journey to be undertaken first.

“It is important to understand that a fully automated production line is not possible due to current build concepts,” says Mr Graffs. “Also let’s consider cycle time, an aircraft’s life cycle is 30 years. So if we are going to start bringing in new cloud-based automation intelligence then we will need to be able to sustain the availability of that technology tool over the complete life of the aircraft.”

For all a modern aircraft’s intricate avionics and on-board computer systems, suddenly you start to realise how labour-intensive the physical creation of an aircraft still is. Airbus uses massive purpose-built jigs that cradle and hold the fuselage as it is slowly built, but real human beings tighten the nuts and bolts, albeit with electrically powered tools and calibration monitors.

Future challenges

“Our challenges in the future are that we will need extremely high customisation capabilities and the ability to work with a complete global supply chain. We need to start to be able to design for automation and work to implement controls focused on both cyber and product security,” says Mr Graffs.

If Airbus were to stop selling aircraft today then it will take the company ten years to finish production lines and deliver on its open order book. So could the firm down tools for a period and spend some time implementing a new cloud platform? That obviously wouldn’t be prudent by any management strategist’s yardstick.

Manual labour dominates the production line and workers need to be highly skilled

Airbus has a solution for implementing cloud and creating the digital factory of the future, and it comes in three phases. Initially the company has segmented out three core work domains – enterprise resource planning, manufacturing and engineering, and the physical workshop floor itself.

In a traditional business – Airbus’s starting point – a company puts one of these work domains above the other in a vertical model. On the journey to cloud, the firm then attempts to put these domains on a horizontal plane (no pun intended) to create a more level operational surface. Finally, when cloud actually happens, the firm will achieve a more cyclical, full-integration approach.

At this point the company can introduce additional domains, including cloud-based software, to provide functionality such as product life cycle management. This is also when the firm can create digital twin virtual copies of all equipment to stress test and provide predictive maintenance functions, all from cloud-based software services.

Cloud computing is typified by its ubiquity and its flexibility, but as much as you start to regard it as a business utility in the same sense as electricity or water, you cannot simply just switch it on and expect some kind of turbo charge to happen.

Cloud computing will take off for aerospace and hit new heights, but expect some delays and a holding pattern. Sorry, couldn’t resist.