Dec 5, 2019

Explaining the Shift to Digital Manufacturing in Aerospace

digital manufacturing in aerospaceAs many industries prepare to adapt to Industry 4.0, upgrades to current manufacturing processes will be accompanied by greater digitization. Aerospace and defense is one area where greater digitization and the move to full-scale digital manufacturing addresses many of the industry’s acute pain points. 

The move to greater digitization is allowing innovative aerospace and defense manufacturers to be more agile, leverage their data, produce on-demand, shorten discovery and prototyping times, and ultimately respond to the growing demand for new aircraft.

CNC machining for digital manufacturing in aerospace

Digital manufacturing in aerospace is already affecting the fabrication of mechanical components.

Why Digital Manufacturing in Aerospace?

According to a recent study from Accenture, 77% of surveyed aerospace manufacturers collectively plan to invest 5 to 10% of total revenues in digital technologies to support engineering, supply chain management, and manufacturing within the next three years. These three areas collectively form three cornerstones of digital manufacturing, where a factory is more connected, responsive, and productive than ever before. With a current backlog spanning nine years and projected 5.1% CAGR over the next decade, technologies for digital manufacturing in aerospace can address current pain points in these areas in the following ways:

Closing the Skills Gap

Aerospace engineering and manufacturing, once seen as a high-profile industry, is less attractive to new engineering students. The current workforce is aging and nearing retirement age. In fact, more workers are retiring than are entering the workforce. According to a recent report from Carbon60, 59% of aerospace OEMs are concerned about the scarcity of skilled engineers and believe this poses a threat to the industry. Thirty-two percent of vacant positions are currently considered “hard to fill,” and nearly half of surveyed companies (48.3%) state that vacancies have hampered their ability to keep up with demand.

While the move to digital manufacturing in aerospace will not be the only solution to recruitment and retention challenges, these new systems will create greater demand for electrical and software engineers. This crop of new workers will be required to operate digital manufacturing equipment and adopt additive manufacturing processes to newer, more advanced components. Additive manufacturing systems and processes help compensate for the existing and projected shortage of workers, both for mechanical parts and advanced electronics systems.

Among the many productivity and product quality benefits provided by 3D printing, chief among these is the ability to produce complex parts with lower costs and fixed lead time. While this broadens the breadth of skills required by manufacturing workers and engineers, it requires fewer workers, allowing additive systems to bridge the gap between traditional production processes and worker shortages.

The Value of Data

The copious amount of data gathered in digital manufacturing operations, as well as the data that can be acquired from deployed systems, is changing the traditional business model in aerospace and defense. The IPC-CFX connectivity standards for digital factories and the standardization of design data formats allow multiple systems to easily pass and collect data throughout a digital manufacturing operation. The fact that data formats in digital manufacturing assets are standardized allows important productivity and product quality insights to be gleaned.

In the realm of aerospace, the variety of data gathered from digital manufacturing operations and aircraft during operation can be leveraged to predict maintenance, repair, inventory demands, and process overhaul. While data itself is a valuable commodity, prominent aerospace companies are leveraging specialized analytics tools to create new services to support aerospace OEMs. Boeing’s AnalytX system already boasts hundreds of customers and expects growth in the aerospace industry to continue.

Smart Digital Factories Make Aerospace Manufacturers More Agile

Supply chain volatility and the demand backlog across the industry make it difficult for manufacturers to quickly respond to their customers. Digitization of manufacturing assets and the ability to hold a broad range of digital inventory make manufacturers more responsive to changes in the supply chain and customer demands. Additive manufacturing systems are ideal for responding to changes in demand and supply chain volatility as mechanical and electrical components can be immediately produced directly from digital models without requiring tooling changes.

Digital manufacturing in aerospace production and assembly line

A digital assembly line allows manufacturers to respond quickly to changes in demand and the supply chain.

As the range of available materials increases and more additive systems are commercialized, components suppliers can better respond to supply chain volatility and take greater control over production in-house. Currently, digital inkjet 3D printing systems for complex electronics and a variety of processes for metal components have allowed major manufacturers to scale their on-demand production capabilities.

From Mechanical Components to Electronics

While 3D printing and additive manufacturing processes are normally discussed in terms of mechanical components, electrical engineers and PCB designers can take advantage of these processes for the production of fully-functional electronics at scale. Additive manufacturing systems allow rapid prototyping and full-scale manufacturing of critical components with reduced weight, greater complexity, less assembly time, and fixed costs, both for mechanical systems and electronics.

These benefits are not limited to the aerospace industry. Any company that designs or manufactures complex electronic products can benefit from moving to a digital manufacturing paradigm and complementing their traditional processes with additive systems. Aerospace and defense manufacturers can onshore their operations, as well as take greater control over product quality and security when they bring additive manufacturing systems in-house. Additive manufacturing systems are digital in nature, making them ideal for use in smart factories for electronics production.

Although digital manufacturing in aerospace is becoming more popular, many other industries can benefit from implementing digital manufacturing in their facilities. The DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is ideal for designers and manufacturers of advanced electronics. This system provides low to medium-scale manufacturing of complex PCBs with planar or non-planar geometry, complex interconnect architecture, and embedded components. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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