Airbus’ Martin Bolton Talks Artificial Intelligence and Manufacturing

A few weeks ago we welcomed Airbus’ Martin Bolton to catch up with our teams focused on AI for manufacturing, a key focus area for Acubed. While Martin was in Silicon Valley, we discussed his thoughts on the impact of Acubed work in this area on the broader Airbus ecosystem.

What is your role at Airbus?

As the Head of Industrial Technology for Airbus Commercial, I’m responsible for overseeing all aspects of industrial technology development and research and technology (R&T) activities. This includes developing new machines, processes, tools and techniques for building aircraft. My team also includes all the technical experts who define the manufacturing processes for Airbus’ supply chain issues such as improving manufacturing processes.

How do you see the evolution of AI impacting manufacturing at Airbus?

Today, our manufacturing system is quite labor-intensive, making it difficult to access information on progress in real-time. However, we're now at a point where technologies like machine learning (ML) and computer vision can improve data availability, allowing us to use AI tools to better understand our systems.

Promising application areas include:

  • Using AI to improve the quality of processes;
  • Enhancing the overall system instead of individual parts;
  • Increasing speed, quality and delivery processes;
  • And providing better visibility to customers about their aircraft status.

By way of contrast, in the automotive industry, customers can track the status and progress of their car during its manufacturing. Similarly, we aim to offer insights into aircraft production status and forecasted delivery timelines. AI tools offer significant opportunities to achieve these goals in our sector.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges today?

A major opportunity lies in improving aircraft progress tracking. Our current systems are labor-intensive due to regulatory requirements around tracing every process, which makes reporting similarly laborious. In an AI-driven environment, the challenge is determining what data needs to be captured strictly and what can be more opportunistic.

Social acceptance of AI and machine vision is also crucial; it's essential for everyone to understand that these tools aim solely to improve our systems and ultimately solve a common pain point from those on the manufacturing floor - doing away with consuming and complex administrative reporting work.

Why is Acubed’s AVIA initiative important to explore? What’s the potential value?

This is one of the most exciting industrial initiatives I've seen. Advanced Visual Intelligence for Assembly or AVIA is a new computer vision-based shop floor application that can demonstrate immediate business benefits, even in its simplest implementation. Many of the technologies I'm responsible for deploying in current factories or aircraft have limited immediate business benefits today, but hold great value for future aircraft. While customers pay for these technologies, we're essentially preparing our industrial system for the next 10-20 years. With AVIA, we can show the immediate business case works, with significant improvements in safety, quality and delivery analytics day one.

What is AVIA’s differentiator versus other initiatives?

While similar technology, like monitoring aircraft movement on the factory floor with computer vision, is useful, it offers limited value. AVIA, however, tracks processes at a detailed level, automatically recording activities and alleviating the burden on technicians, allowing them to focus on their work without additional tasks. This effectively addresses a significant, daily pain point on the shopfloor. From a regulatory standpoint, we must demonstrate that every process is completed by qualified individuals according to defined procedures. This is crucial for identifying root causes in case of failures and ensuring compliance.

What does success for Acubed’s AVIA initiative look like to you?

Previously when I was managing an operational factory, workers complained regularly about the administrative side of their job. On average, each person spends 10 minutes per shift recording activities, across our full Industrial system, this adds up to a significant amount of time and cost for Airbus. While the use of smartphones has improved self-reporting, the need to record each and every task remains a waste. AVIA aims to eliminate that waste, further streamlining processes and reducing costs.

In the short-term I’m eager to see the system working robustly and demonstrate a strong proof of concept. Longer-term, I’d like to walk into a factory and see the system operating seamlessly in the background without requiring intervention from workers.

Why is it valuable to leverage Airbus’ Silicon Valley-based innovation center for AI-based manufacturing innovations?

Speed is key. We know we're at the forefront of technology and can quickly demonstrate what's possible. Acubed, especially given its geographical location and agile set-up, is able to operate with speed, iterating and pivoting to reach tangible outcomes. Acubed has great access to machine learning experts who can build quickly, and also has a strong connection with Airbus Final Assembly Lines in Mobile, AL, as well as teams who are close to the industrial system and understand operational implementation first-hand.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I can’t wait to see the team’s progress in 2024 and beyond. AVIA has the potential to make a significant impact in three main areas:

  • Business Benefit: AVIA can capture the full scope of a worker’s activity through to completion, alleviating pain points, improving processes and tracking and ultimately improving the bottom line.
  • Safety: Our safety management system is two-fold: personal accountability and management oversight. AVIA can address safety concerns both at the individual level and the management level. For example, the system can proactively identify and alert managers to ensure PPE standards are met.
  • Quality: AVIA can actively identify when an object is damaged, when equipment or waste is a FDO risk and tag it for clean up.

If you’re interested in joining our team, see our open roles here.

- Paige Wilson