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Aerospace and defence manufacturing in the age of Industry 4.0

artificial intelligence

The convergence of digitised machine parts, improved connectivity and emerging ‘Industry 4.0’ technologies has begun to reshape global aerospace and defence (A&D) value chains.

Traditional manufacturers and distributors supplying machinery, equipment, metal fabricated parts and electronics are being challenged by aggressive and agile competitors, offering less-expensive products with shorter development and delivery lead times.

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Many of these new A&D manufacturers are less risk averse than the companies they're attempting to disrupt, dedicating significant percentages of their revenue to R&D, and to upgrading their technological infrastructure through the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies such as cloud computing, the industrial internet of things (IIoT), big data and predictive analytics.

A&D has been a forerunner in the use of IIoT technologies to improve process and product efficiencies. The industry was among the first to realise the utility of sensors in areas such as aircraft maintenance and health monitoring, real-time identification of quality issues, rapid delivery of software updates, and optimised tracking and traceability.

As a result, military and commercial airlines are currently generating terabytes of digital data every day. So far, only a tiny fraction of that potentially invaluable information is being leveraged. This in itself presents an opportunity – that ocean of data will eventually yield profitable secrets, such as the identification of new manufacturing and service opportunities.

By harnessing AI, manufacturers provide their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems with the ability to mine and analyse immense amounts of data, along with the power to respond to surfaced insights with specific, automated tasks. For users across the enterprise, AI can deliver real-time information with direct relevance to decision-making processes, encouraging the creation of agile, increasingly competitive cultures.

Before considering a few specific benefits of AI, it's worth considering the optimal context for its deployment. Since data lies at the heart of the IIoT, it's crucial that an enterprise's data streams are timely and accurate.

To this end, a modern A&D factory requires a single source of truth (SSoT) – a fully-integrated approach to ERP that ensures error- and redundancy-free data. Combined with manufacturing operations management (MOM) software, an SSoT provides AI with accurate, real-time data from across the entire enterprise and, optimally, along its associated value chain.

It is impossible, in these early days of the IIoT, to predict all the benefits that will accrue in the A&D arena from the implementation of AI. Even today, however, its advantages in several key areas are clear.

Bolstered by IIoT sensors, along with an emerging realisation of the benefits of transparency along the value chain, AI predicts changes in customer demand, or the likelihood of on-time or late deliveries. AI is also an enormous help in the avoidance of down time, using historical data to predict the service needs, or even failure, of mission-critical machinery.

AI is also changing our ability to detect anomalies, including fraud or incorrect key strokes, by 'listening' to machine activity. For example, if a widget-maker usually makes 10 items in 60 seconds, the AI notices if it suddenly produces 100 widgets in the same time period, and automatically notifies the appropriate personnel.

Computer vision is another area in which AI is gaining traction. Currently used by autonomous vehicles to detect objects, computer vision assists with health and safety regulations on the factory floor, uses facial recognition to detect who is authorised to use machines or forklifts, and takes pictures of products as they come off the production line to provide real-time quality checks.

Using cloud-based, multi-user experience platforms, ERP-embedded social media capabilities now support factory workers with AI to create a single, powerful collaborative platform. Customer service also benefits, as AI-backed chatbots determine customer needs and sentiment, and mine historical data to suggest relevant products and services.

In the CFO's office, AI uses regression analysis to determine the likelihood of default, makes cash flow predictions for working capital management, and performs costing analysis to model exchange rate trends for imported components.

Faced with intense, globalised competition, changing attitudes to acquisition and sustainment, shifting economies and geopolitical instability, today's A&D manufacturers need to become more agile and forward-thinking than they’ve ever been before. Strategically-utilised AI will be one of the keys to future success, helping A&D companies allocate capital and build differentiating capabilities.

Jakes Mantle is the product manager for SYSPRO Australasia.

Aerospace and defence manufacturing in the age of Industry 4.0
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