How digital twins are lending new wings to the aerospace and defense sectors
umlaut is building virtual factories for OEMs and their suppliers. Richard Hiller and Philip Potkowski on the growth market in the sky.
The aerospace sector has been plagued by crises, but now things are really picking up again – what are the challenges that the sector is currently facing?
Philip Potkowski: The aerospace and defence sectors are entering a new era. With the growth in the world's population and the emergence of new economic powerhouses such as China, the aviation market is growing at a rate of around four percent a year. As one of our customers, Airbus is also planning to scale up their production in Mobile, Alabama, where they are investing in a second production facility. Automation and digitalisation will in the future also improve the efficiency of production in the defence sector. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has resulted in new orders for aircraft worldwide, increasing the demand for F16 and F35 fighter jets at Lockheed Martin, for example. As is the case in many industries, the challenges being faced include a shortage of skilled labour, issues with availability of components and long lead times for construction.
To what extent can digital twins help when it comes to scaling up production?
Richard Hiller: We are moving away from paper and presentations and are now focusing solely on the virtual factory. Right from the start, with the development of ideas and planning of shop floors, digital twins can be very helpful in convincing senior management of new proposals. And a virtual copy can also be very useful for training staff in commissioning and maintenance – known as predictive maintenance. Our valve index headsets allow us to simulate the body sizes and arm lengths of employees – and reproduce their movements. With so-called safety and Gemba walks, we carry out digital tests on plant and equipment before the plans for implementation are given the go-ahead. Has the flow of production been planned in a logical way, or does the machinery need to be rearranged or modified? The list of points to address this is put on a heatmap that runs in the background.
...and does this reduce costs?
Richard Hiller: It can very quickly save millions. We tested the use of robots for a supplier to the aerospace industry. The task of the robots was to move tank shells from A to B and position them accurately, to the millimetre, and the cost per robot would have been more than half a million euros. Our simulation showed that the robots are not able to work with sufficient precision – and that the use of cranes and personnel would be more efficient.
Philip Potkowski: There is a lot of potential for cost reductions, in particular in the training of new and established employees. Thousands more skilled workers are currently needed in the aerospace and defence sectors. With the help of VR headsets, new employees can be trained on digital floors and at virtual machines, independent of their location. In our experience, the learning curve of the trainees is shortened by between 30 and 50 percent. Furthermore, during their training, they are not getting in the way of operators and shop floor personnel, so the efficiency of the factory remains at a high level. All these aspects save money.
How much do the virtual copies cost?
Richard Hiller: This depends to a significant extent on the quality of the 3D data that is made available to us for the plant and equipment. We can efficiently implement a wide range of existing 3D data to create a virtual environment. Additional or missing data can be obtained via scans or remodeling with implications on the lead time and cost. If we have a good 3D blank, we can build on it. An example: the extensive simulation of a planned thixo-moulding factory using raw data ended up costing half a million euros – but led to savings of many more times that figure.
Is the technology only of interest in terms of setting-up and commissioning?
Richard Hiller: A digital twin is capable of much more than this. In Building Information Modelling (BIM), for example, data on the course of pipelines, load capacities or the recyclability of components is incorporated – this simplifies the virtual modification and dismantling of plant and equipment. Training courses can be carried out in parallel and independent of location, using real-time data. When the plant or item of equipment is ready, we can make values available such as temperature curves, pressure or figures from the manufacturing execution system (MES) for operators using augmented reality headsets.
How long does it take to create a twin?
Philip Potkowski: We are relatively fast. Traditional aerospace works slowly and in silos. Digital twins allow us to address both of these issues. We see them as a collaborative platform. Whole teams can go on virtual tours together. The data sets can be modelled and we can replicate them. An aerospace OEM recently tasked us with the transmission of a digital twin onto a plant on another continent.
What does the future hold for the twins?
Richard Hiller: Currently still partly heavy XR hardware components will develop further in the future and be much more flexible and lighter. Also, at some point, it will become possible not only to experience processes and work steps in virtual form, but also in such a way that we can touch and feel them too. There are already sticks available to train grasping actions at work stations. Things will get even more exciting when we are able to replicate drilling resistance, vibrations or haptic feedback.
Philip Potkowski: Digital twins are just one of the tools in the Model Based System Engineering (MBSE) tool box. With Advanced Air Mobility Solutions (AAM), there are new players in the urban air mobility sector, and the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector is also expanding, with companies such as Archer, Joby, Lilium and Vertical. Certifications are currently being set up at the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. This boom is bringing new dynamism and agility to the market. After all, the quantities to be produced will be significantly higher than in traditional aviation. The design and engineering being undertaken is completely new, and new stakeholders are getting involved, for example the operators of charging infrastructure and networks, logistics experts and municipal administration authorities. Digitalisation and automation are providing key support in getting these projects off the ground.