Examining digital advantages

Posted on 28 Oct 2022 by Joe Bush

At Smart Factory Expo (SFE) 2022, BAE Systems’ Technology Team Leader Iain Minton will be giving a talk at the Digital Transformation Theatre around how manufacturers can use digital to reduce time and cost. We recently caught up with him for a sneak preview.

Can you give a flavour of your talk at this year’s SFE?

I’ll be addressing the challenge of how we move forward as a sector and integrate digital into manufacturing. This is a project we’ve been working on with partners, looking at how digital data can be enhanced to offer a real benefit. What can be done with the tools available today? And what are the challenges that remain to be solved?

The Tempest concept model on the airfield at BAE Systems in Warton, Lancashire, UK - image courtesy of BAE Systems

I’ll cover the digital thread and some of the approaches that are underpinning that, plus what is left to be proven in terms of making this work in our environment? I’ll also be looking at how to reduce some of the fixed elements that occur in manufacturing, due to today’s approaches, and how digital can affect that?

An example in aerospace, which also occurs commonly in automotive, is where tooling has to be selected early on in a design cycle, which then has to be manufactured. However, if there then needs to be changes made further down the line, that will impact the tooling and there will be a cost and a timeframe associated with it. So, I will be looking at how digital can help avoid those situations.

What has been the history of digital technologies within the aerospace sector and how are they evolving?

Digital in aerospace has been prevalent for quite some time in terms of design, engineering and the provision and capture of information around production controls and logistics etc. The challenges that have arisen have tended to be around the tight regulations that govern the sector which traditionally, have meant that change has often been too onerous to suit a business case. This means that the sector has evolved in spurts rather than seamless continuous improvement. Other sectors with shorter cycle times can potentially have a more accelerated improvement curve, whereas it has been more stepped in aerospace.

Aerospace is, of course, leading edge, but other sectors, such as automotive, have progressed more rapidly due to the opportunity to deploy technology more regularly into the production cycles. Product lifetimes can make this prohibitive in aerospace, despite the sector being at the forefront in terms of research.

What does BAE’s digital journey look like?

Digital has wide-reaching connotations, but to purely focus on manufacturing, we’ve been looking at how to get more information from our processes and link that together to enhance our continuity for approvals and deployment of correct, validated data.

In my talk at Smart Factory Expo I will cover the tools available now, what can be done differently beyond the constraints of a certified product. And purely within an R&D environment, what can you do to improve information in the definition of a model, and how can you use that downstream? How can you use that data to speed up your time to react to change and simulating what manufacturing does? Plus, how you use the supply chain to look at sharing data, enabling logistics ordering, stock provisions etc to be shared more commonly between both supplier and customer.

I’ll also cover the role 5G can play in that arena to allow more access points and speed of access. Does that give you simulation and real-time data, and how does that feed into your skill sets? Importantly, it’s not just about looking at using or analysing data, it’s also how that impacts operator skills.

What are the main challenges in adopting digital in aerospace and how can they be overcome?

The biggest challenge is around data interaction within the whole value chain and how you keep that digital thread. A smaller company needs to be able to feed into a larger organisation and have its data validated by a certification authority without having a particular piece of software mandated by the supply chain. Otherwise, different companies can end up using numerous versions of software which smaller companies may have to use in order to become a supplier. As a consequence this often results in the situation being prohibitive to SMEs entering the market.

That open source connectivity between supply chain and partners is crucial and allows different software vendors and a variety of approaches to be used for the benefit of the companies involved, rather than the supply chain.

Another huge hurdle that we’ve got to overcome in aerospace is the digital acceptance in the testing, validation and certification of aircraft. Crucial to that will be how we move away from the physical testing that adds time and complexity to the process, and towards the acceptance of simulation? It’s still has to provide the same, if not better, safety than the physical process. That goes beyond merely computer power; it’s about understanding the skill set required to understand the physics that then allows you to model correctly in the digital world.

And finally, there is the area of defence and how we work in a digital thread. Does data even fit into this space? How do you control that data? How can you make sure it’s secure? How do you manage data transfer across international lines? This isn’t necessarily a digital problem; it’s a problem that the digital processes highlight that we need to solve.

What are the main advantages of digital and how are these changing/shaping the aerospace sector?

One project we’ve looked at is how to provide data information to somebody who’s building parts to guide them and record how that part is built, which includes validation. You can tailor the amount of information they’re given based on their maturity. One thing we found, which is human nature, is that once something becomes familiar, an individual tends to stop taking on information and starts operating from habit – that works until something changes. So it’s about how we make sure we tailor the amount of information to the expertise of an individual, such that they don’t end up them clicking through screens without having digested crucial information.

We can use digital to confirm whether someone is a skilled operator, and is used to a certain station, and therefore the amount of information they need. However, if the individual is new or there’s been a major change, the level of information needs to be increased and highlighted. Digital makes that process far easier.

Can you explain the power of partnerships?

Over the past two to three years, we’ve worked with over 50 partners on these concepts; funding agencies such as the government through the Ministry of Defence to the likes of Innovate UK. We’ve also partnered with large scale companies such as Siemens, who we’ve worked with to explore common problems together. We’ve worked with academia and research centres such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) to look at emerging technologies and how to take them through technology readiness so we can understand the maturity and where they need improvement.

Crucially we’ve also worked with SMEs to test whether a product or solution works for us, while also providing an opportunity for those companies to better understand what the aerospace sector’s needs might be so that they can refine their offering going forward?

What does the future look like?

Through our programmes we’ve been researching and looking at what the future could look like; how do we make the impossible possible? We’ve been looking at technologies and the current methods of manufacturing, and asking can we really go as far as being fully virtual, for example? How can we incorporate some of the advances we’ve seen in gaming into manufacturing? We can see a world where there are elements of aircraft build that fit with that.

There are elements of aircraft build that potentially don’t and therefore need a different solution. So the future, as far as we see it, is one that’s fast and open to all sorts of answers. Through exploration, and as we have started to gain access to more data, we have been able to understand more and deploy it in more areas. And that starts to cascade out in terms of other uses.

At Smart Factory Expo (SFE) 2022, Iain Minton will be giving a talk at the Digital Transformation Theatre around how manufacturers can use digital to reduce time and cost.


*Tickets are for manufacturers only.

Iain MintonIain has worked in the aerospace industry since graduating in engineering from Oxford University. During over 20 years at Safran Nacelles, Iain worked throughout the engineering arena, working in product validation and as Chief Engineer of Nacelles, before moving into management roles within the technical department.

Since 2021 Iain has led the BAE Systems Technology team, responsible for a wide range of technology programmes across the air sector that span the lifecycle of our current and future products. An active STEM Ambassador, Iain chairs the Engineering Advisory Board of Burnley College, is a past Chairman of the Aerospace NorthWest Centre of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a past Board Member of the North West Aerospace Alliance, and a chartered engineer.

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