Digital Manufacturing: An Opportunity Amid the Pandemic

COVID-19 has hit manufacturing hard. Across countless industries, factories have struggled with supply chain interruptions, worker availability and huge fluctuations in demand. Aviation is no exception: IATA expects full-year 2020 air traffic to be down 66% compared to 2019. But crises also offer opportunities. Before the pandemic, digital technology was already transforming manufacturing. Now, the case for further digitization is stronger than ever. It supports business continuity and improves operational efficiency.

Daryl Taylor, the Vice President and General Manager at the Airbus US Manufacturing Facility in Mobile, Alabama, says the pandemic has reinforced the potential of digitization in aircraft manufacturing. “For our office staff, the rapid adoption of digital collaboration tools made the shift to remote working relatively painless. On the shop floor, we’re seeing how digital tools can support planning, performance and productivity.”

Acubed’s Project ADAM team plays an important role in encouraging the Mobile manufacturing facility to accelerate digitization. The two groups have collaborated on several pilot projects, testing tools that offer improved visibility into manufacturing processes or enable fast, flexible production planning. “In some ways, the ADAM team has helped us see a solution to a problem we didn’t know we had,” says Taylor. “They’ve really helped accelerate a shift in the mindset of our organization.”

The path to digitalization

Digitizing manufacturing operations is a challenging task, particularly against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic. Digitization doesn’t come for free, and as a recent report by McKinsey points out, the pandemic juxtaposes two contrasting priorities for many businesses: the need to develop resilience and agility versus the constraints imposed by cash preservation.

“That’s why a pilot or proof of concept is so important,” says Taylor. “It’s difficult to make that leap without the right business case. We have to be able to show that a digital technology can bring an efficiency improvement of at least 10% or 15%. But once you do, you can potentially apply that technology not just in one location, but in numerous sites across the business.”

A further challenge for aviation is integrating digital skill sets into well established and long product life cycles. Transitioning to automation and full digitalization is difficult without moving to 3D and digital design and manufacturing. According to one recent McKinsey survey, 90% of manufacturing and supply-chain professionals plan to invest in talent for digitization. But it’s important to set the right expectations, Taylor says. “The way we assemble most parts of an aircraft will remain largely unchanged for the next decade. In reality, we can’t just let loose a bunch of tech-savvy digital natives and say ‘get to work’. They’ll quickly become disappointed without the right priorities.”

Making manufacturing more efficient

Instead, Taylor is focusing on digitizing supporting tasks to enable the workforce at the US Manufacturing Facility to be more effective and efficient.

The recent introduction of digital dashboards provides detailed insights into real-time performance across the site – a task that previously took hours of manual number crunching. This will help move the facility into a position where they can make more accurate workflow predictions. Continued integration of Skywise, Airbus’ open data platform that connects inflight, engineering and operations data, will support this. And later this year, the facility will start to introduce real-time location tracking for major parts, giving a quicker, clearer overview of the production process.

Digitization is already underway at the Final Assembly Line in Mobile through tools such as cockpit dashboards

Taylor is particularly excited about a new pilot project to explore the potential of wearable tracking devices. From a COVID-19 perspective, they could provide valuable health benefits by accurately tracing employee movements (who they’ve been near and for how long) in case quarantine measures need to be imposed. “Beyond that, we hope to learn more about how people move around workstations – can we cut out unnecessary actions to further improve efficiency?” Taylor says.

Digital factories for greater productivity

According to a Deloitte study in the US, digital factory initiatives will likely enable manufacturers to see triple the labor productivity growth rate during the next decade (2019–2030) compared to the previous one (2007–2018). Each industrial revolution has seen this curve, as technology reaches a critical mass of adoption.

“After the pandemic, we’ve got to find ways to come back more efficiently and more effectively,” says Taylor. “The Acubed team can certainly help us do that. I see huge value in injecting its mindset and digital expertise into shaping how we operate.”