How aerospace engineering is reaping the benefits of Industry 4.0. By Jonathan Wilkins

From the Wright Brothers’ flight in 1903 to the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the aerospace industry has a proud history of innovation and this is continuing to this day in the age of the fourth industrial revolution, otherwise known as Industry 4.0. We are seeing the introduction of smart technology and artificial intelligence (AI) onto the factory floor, leading to improved levels of productivity and efficiency. Industry 4.0 is not a new concept; it was first introduced at Hannover Messe in 2011, but it is now being adopted by more vertical sectors, including aerospace.

The global aerospace engineering market is worth over $70 billion, and is expected to surpass $99 billion by 2025, as Aerospace 4.0 becomes a reality. This will see the widespread adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies like augmented reality, machine learning and 5G wireless communications throughout the sector.

Augmented reality
Traditionally, taking a product from concept through to development is a time-consuming, resource-intensive process that requires constant back-and-forth communications between several parties, leading to numerous revisions of the initial concept. This all takes place before the product even reaches manufacturing and the mainstream production line.

Augmented reality (AR) technology reduces the tedious nature of this process with its ability to streamline collaboration between the parties involved. Company directors would be able to see the product in development in real-time through use of an AR device, giving them the opportunity to offer advice and insights without this bringing any delay. Applying AR technology in this way will boost both productivity and efficiency of product development in the manufacturing sector.

Airbus has used glasses-based AR technology in its Mixed Reality Application (MiRA) projects to integrate virtual mock-ups into its production line, giving workers access to complete 3D models of the aircraft that is being produced. They mainly used it to check the integrity of the secondary structural brackets that hold hydraulics in place in the A380 fuselage.

Airbus reported that by implementing AR technology through use of MiRA, the time required to inspect the brackets was reduced from three weeks to just three days. They also noted that it led to an improvement in working conditions for technicians who previously had to kneel to check floor brackets. Because they are synchronised with the aircraft plan using a laser connection, the AR glasses provide technicians with real-time distance information that allows them to work hands free.

AR technology also allows engineers to employ a streamlined predictive maintenance programme within the factory. For example, infrared thermography is an AR-based technology that allows operators to observe electrical systems, mechanical equipment and fluid systems using thermal vision. This allows them to spot faulty connections, low tank levels and abnormal operating temperatures at a glance, without the need to physically touch the equipment, reducing any risk to the operator.

By providing real-time visualisations of any potential points of failure within a system, operators can see at a glance if there is a problem and identify the parts at fault. Replacement parts can then be ordered from an industrial parts supplier before any costly unplanned downtime occurs.

5G wireless sensors
Now, I’d like to turn our focus to a relatively recent experiment that was carried out by Ericsson, one of the world’s largest 5G equipment suppliers. In collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology in Germany, they conducted a test in a factory that makes metal bladed disks (BLISKS) for jet engines. These large components are milled in a process that can take 20 hours to complete and involves extremely precise cuts being made to the metal parts.

A key challenge faced in BLISK production is that the process is extremely difficult to monitor in real time, so it is only possible to identify faults when the milling finished. The inability to detect milling issues, like small vibrational patterns, means the overall process has a high error rate of up to 25 per cent — leading to a significant amount of wasted time and money.

5G provides a stable, ultra-low latency means of monitoring the metal milling process in real time. Because it can transmit key data in less than a millisecond, adopting 5G in high-value aerospace engineering projects will enable errors to be detected and prevented on a scale that isn’t possible using other communication methods.

By adding 5G sensors to the machines, Ericsson was able to reduce the error rate to 15 per cent, lowering the overall production cost of each blade by €3600. This translates into a yearly saving of €27 million for the factory producing BLISKS.

Aerospace 4.0 has the potential to go down in history as a crowning moment of the aerospace engineering sector, on par with 1903 and 1969, and these new technologies will make it a reality. However, it is important for businesses to remember that no one upgrade alone will solve their productivity problems. That will still require careful obsolescence management, selective infrastructure upgrades and a willingness to explore the features of the new technologies in a diverse range of applications.

Jonathan Wilkins is director at industrial parts supplier EU Automation. EU Automation stocks and sells new, used, refurbished and obsolete industrial automation spares. Its global network of preferred partner warehouses, and wholly owned distribution centres, enables it to offer a unique service within the automation industry, spanning the entire globe. It provides worldwide express delivery on all products meaning it can supply any part, to any destination, at very short notice.