FCAS – with its driver to halve the timescales and significantly reduce cost – demands a whole new approach to manufacturing. Usually, we would expect costs to increase with the need to create new capabilities and use more advanced technologies.
In part, these improvements will be delivered through the increased use of robotics working alongside the operator, and the introduction of new processes, such as additive layer manufacturing and more digital development. Some of these technologies are already helping to drive efficiency into our current Typhoon production facilities.
Our approach to designing the Future Combat Air System is not only about speed and efficiency; it’s a complete step-change in our approach to factories. This is revolutionary, digitally-enabled aircraft-making that has major benefits across industry and beyond defence. James Ritchie, Head of AirWorks, BAE Systems
We are taking a model-based engineering approach, where we use digital models and synthetic testing before any physical work takes place, saving significant time and money. By far the biggest enabler of the future factory environment, however, is data engineering – the collection, collation, management and exploitation of data. With FCAS, we will process more data in a single year than constitutes every digital photo ever taken. Our factory will deal in petabytes of data, from initial modelling through to shop-floor manufacturing.
In mid-2020, we secured a £9.5 million investment in 5G technology from the Department of Culture Media and Sport which, together with our own investment, is allowing us to develop and test 5G enabled technologies around the factory. This ‘internet of things’ (IoT) approach is essential to deliver accurate data from partners into the hands of engineers, and to drive the robotic manufacturing technologies. We can envisage scenarios where our supply chain is collaborating with us in secure cloud environments, from tablet devices alongside aircraft in production.
Much of our recent work has focused on the enormous potential for data exploitation. For example, how will we create the digital infrastructure to deliver the ‘single point of truth’ dataset, which can be shared on factory wireless devices utilising augmented and mixed reality? This is an area where we are working with world-leading partners like Siemens, IBM and PTC and developing industrial IoT platforms for Factory of the Future connectivity. We already have an operational robotic assembly capability for an aircraft’s front fuselage, which has been demonstrated physically (and virtually) to government and industry. Our work is also informing national UK Industry 4.0 manufacturing strategies, via the Made Smarter programme.
In 2021, more of our factory will be IoT-enabled and by the end of the year, we expect to have a blueprint for how we will use data to enhance FCAS manufacturing. From here, we will be working with over 50 partners across the UK to mature production standards and capabilities. These include SMEs such as the aerospace automation specialist Electroimpact, who are working with us to develop a highly reconfigurable, product-agnostic assembly capability.