Juan Ignacio Castro, a technology enthusiast with more than a decade of experience in aeronautical manufacturing, has been leading the digital transformation at Airbus’ Military Aircraft division. He has made it clear that the digital transformation implies an effort on everyone’s part: the company, the employees, and the suppliers. In order to adapt and stay competitive in the market, “It is important for the entire value chain to develop innovative products and services,” says Castro.
What does digital transformation mean to Airbus?
Airbus started the digital transformation process in order to meet the needs of customers. It was they who took us down this path by demanding customized orders with short delivery targets, which required us to speed up deliveries. To achieve this requires an overall view of all the processes (design, development, sales, services etc.) and connecting all the data generated during the associated operations, from beginning to end. In other words, an end-to-end solution.
This situation led us to digitalize ourselves. To change the way we manufacture, to use different technologies that make us more disruptive (digital platform, data analytics, digital twins, collaborative robots, drones, augmented reality glasses etc.), to use the data we use in production to carry out virtual tests, to offer new services, new business models (predictive maintenance). At the same time, we changed our relationship with customers and changed the way we work. In short, with digitalization we can improve our production, shorten production and development times, generate new services and new business models associated with those services.
How do you generate value from the data?
Based on data analytics, our engineers work by combining our own data with that of the customer. This generates value by then allowing us to do things such as suggesting the most efficient nonscheduled actions to maintenance teams. For example, in our sales division, we have reduced the time that an aircraft is grounded at airports that are not the airline’s base of operations by 30%.
Data Analytics, which is one of our key focuses, also serves to reduce rework during manufacturing. Through these tools, we can identify patterns of non conformity and find the most appropriate solutions immediately. There are examples that show a reduction in rework of up to 20% and this allows us to produce faster.
Data Analytics also helps us to be more efficient in storage. We capture this data using what is known as the Internet of Things (IoT), using sensors in our factories and aircraft. Finally, “how” we do things is also important. We work with multifunctional teams that develop viable minimum products in a short period of time. In other words, they quickly develop valuable solutions for a given scope. Then if they are successful these are scaled up for the whole company or for additional uses.
Give examples of the practical use that Airbus makes of these innovations
We also use Digital Twins. Our design engineers build a virtual model that provides the seed for automatically generating manufacturing instructions, so that through tablets and augmented reality glasses our operators are able to assemble products following the instructions on the devices.
For example, in the A330 there are processes where we now take a fifth of the time previously required to assemble cable harnesses applying this technology. Since we have virtual models, we are able to carry out additive manufacturing of some parts and therefore we can manufacture them at a lower cost. For Airbus, Digital Twins and 3D systems are a strategic decision. They help us to manufacture faster. The fact that we have virtual models of our aircraft allows us to perform virtual tests, which reduces the time used in physical tests. It allows us to fail and check errors before manufacturing. It also helps us to improve designs, services etc. In short, we reduce development time.
We also test using collaborative robots, with which our people can work side by side, drones to perform inspections of an aircraft on the ground when it lands. Using sensors, the drone can detect things that the human eye cannot.
What is Skywise?
Skywise is the digital platform at Airbus, which aims to integrate all the company’s data to add value for our customers. In addition, our employees and suppliers have access to it. It has several levels: Servers where data is stored; applications to manage that data (patterns, algorithms); and specific applications, such as those already mentioned when we talked about the use of data.
At the level of employment, what impact does digitalization have on Airbus?
Jobs are being created associated with new technologies (Data Analytics, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, 3D, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, drones etc.) and other competencies have emerged for connecting these technologies to the customer. Our experience has shown that all kinds of profiles are needed. We have new experts that add value with new capabilities and experienced Airbus engineers with knowledge of where these skills can be applied... Diversity is necessary for digitalization.
Is it difficult to find this new talent?
We invest in people, in their training, so they can acquire these new capabilities. But just as new technologies require a different approach to the business, we also have to approach talent in a different way. In this sense, Airbus also collaborates with other companies, SMEs and has innovation centers to collaborate with startups and take advantage of this talent.
A digitalized company needs its suppliers to also be digitalized
It is important to develop innovative products and services for the entire value chain, so it is important that our suppliers are digitalized. This way we can get them to work with us using virtual models or adjust their production to our demand and reduce stock.