Digitalization in the aviation industry isn’t a new concept. Aviation companies started their digital transformation journeys years ago. Some of these plans were disrupted due to the pandemic’s catastrophic impact on the industry. However, despite this setback, companies are continuing with their digitalization efforts, often at an accelerated pace when compared to pre-pandemic levels.
This focus on digitalization is driving innovation and strategic decision-making within the aviation industry. Aerospace manufacturers are experimenting with digital twins, working on developing zero-emissions aircrafts, and utilizing smart manufacturing technologies to test and validate aircraft designs. Expanding digitalization in the aviation industry ensures aircraft design and quality will continue to improve.
Digitizing aircraft manufacturing has allowed for real-time data collection and analysis. This insight into operations has helped manufacturers realize the benefits of digitalization and has led to increased digital transformation efforts. Aerospace manufacturers have leveraged this real-time data to implement predictive and corrective maintenance processes.
Predictive maintenance accurately predicts when an aircraft or aircraft component will need maintenance. This promotes proactive maintenance on aircrafts, which helps to avoid unexpected repair costs and minimize aircraft downtime, leading to time and cost savings. Corrective maintenance involves analyzing the maintenance process and determining the most effective way to execute it.
Real-time data is also collected and analyzed during the initial manufacturing process. With a comprehensive look into the process, manufacturers have more control over it. Examining this data allows them to improve processes as needed. That includes identifying areas that could be altered to increase efficiency or changing a process to lead to enhanced product quality. One way aircraft manufacturers can do this effectively is by utilizing digital twins.
Digital Twins in Aviation
The aviation industry has started to use digital twins for research and development purposes to improve the design and function of aircrafts. Digital twins are virtual models that can mirror manufacturing processes, product parts or components, and end products. Manufacturers use smart sensors to collect data from processes or products, and then use that data to build the digital twin. Using actual performance data from the real-world object allows digital twins to not only reflect the appearance of their physical counterparts but also to perform the same way.
Within the aviation industry, companies can use digital twins to simulate different parts of the aircraft. Digital twins allow engineers to continuously make virtual changes to aircraft components and see how those changes affect performance. Engineers can also observe how the parts perform under different circumstances, including specific weather conditions, air pressure variations, and number of flights.
All this data and virtual testing allows manufacturers to improve individual components within aircrafts, as well as improve the aircrafts themselves. Of course, having better parts improves performance, and having extensive data on these parts helps manufacturers more accurately predict the lifespan of an aircraft part. This leads to more precise maintenance schedules and proactive maintenance for aircrafts.
Digital twins help aerospace manufacturers understand what works well so they can improve aircrafts and aircraft components. Manufacturers can also create digital twins of aircraft manufacturing processes. This works the same as creating a digital twin of a product, except engineers are analyzing process data instead of product data. They can then implement improvements to optimize efficiency within the production process.
Smart Manufacturing Technologies Driving Digitalization
The aviation industry has always been heavily technology-focused and reliant on innovative technologies to drive advancement. When starting on their digital transformation journeys, aerospace manufacturers turned to a combination of smart manufacturing technologies to digitize their operations.
Digital twins, for example, utilize several advanced technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and industrial connectivity. Implementing such technologies furthers aircraft manufacturers’ digitalization efforts, leading to significantly enhanced manufacturing operations.
The basis of much of this advancement is cloud technology, which enables connectivity within manufacturing plants. Connectivity makes it easier for manufacturers to implement other smart technologies, including those that collect and analyze real-time data.
Utilizing real-time data to drive strategic decisions has significantly benefited manufacturers’ productivity levels. This data is collected by smart sensor technology, and it is often analyzed by a smart technology: artificial intelligence (AI). Digitized operations enable manufactures to collect extensive data sets. This data is often so extensive that it is too much for human workers to sift through. AI, however, can efficiently analyze all that data and determine the most effective adjustments to improve productivity, quality, and other critical elements of manufacturing.
Automation is another smart technology driving digitalization in the aviation industry. Robots and other automation technologies are often used throughout an aircraft manufacturing facility to either make processes more efficient or complete tasks that may be significantly harder — or more dangerous — for human workers to do. These tasks include spot welding, moving large aerospace structures, and drilling holes to apply fasteners and rivets. Automating these tasks has significantly improved production times and enhanced quality within aerospace manufacturing.
Implementing all these technologies to digitally transform aircraft manufacturing has also led to a need for cybersecurity within the aviation industry. Cybersecurity measures protect technologies from bad actors trying to harm companies. This is especially important for aerospace manufacturers who work with the country’s defense companies. Cybersecurity within aircraft manufacturing facilities often includes network monitoring, limited access to networks, antivirus software, and individual device protections, among other security measures. This is necessary to protect stored data and prevent unwanted access to connected machinery and other production processes.
Aerospace manufactures have implemented several smart technologies to digitize the industry in a short time frame. A decade ago, advanced manufacturing technologies were hardly prevalent. But today they are driving innovation within the industry, pushing digitalization even further into operations to improve production efficiency and enhance aircraft performance. As the benefits of these technologies are realized, the aviation industry will continue to pursue digitalization.
To learn more about digitalization in the aviation industry and get a firsthand look at some digital manufacturing technologies, attend AeroDef. AeroDef is a must-attend conference for professionals working to advance aerospace and defense manufacturing.