The Point of Inflection: Mobility on the Aerospace Manufacturing Shop Floor

Anand Pradhan, Head of the Aerospace & Defense segment, TCS
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Anand Pradhan, Head of the Aerospace & Defense segment, TCS

Aerospace and Defense (A&D) manufacturing forms the smallest segment of the global manufacturing industry, with annual revenues at just over a trillion dollars from approximately 2,700 companies. To put it in perspective, the top six automotive companies put together exceed that revenue every year. The concentrated nature of the industry– where the top 10 companies account for 55 percent of the revenues–means a few key players define and drive the global A&D business environment, This arena is characterized by its contradictions and complexities, such as competitive pricing pressures to leverage global supply chains, yet severe restrictions by government regulations and technology export processes. Moreover, the industry is driven by increasingly diversified global markets, yet it is still being served by a duopoly of two major manufactures as the only viable option for airlines planning to buy large commercial aircraft. At the same time, the industry requires constant innovation and cutting edge technology, yet is still supporting World War II era aircraft in service today.

The current global market situation makes the challenge of aerospace manufacturing stability even more complex. On the defense side, the sequestration driven cut of billions of dollars in U.S. defense spending is forcing defense contractors to make affordability a top priority. This has resulted in downsizing and cuts across the board. At the same time, almost a trillion dollars of order backlog globally on the commercial side is driving companies like Boeing and Airbus to aggressively increase production rates for their passenger airplane programs, leading to serious capacity constraints in factories and supply chains.

Squeezed by affordability challenges on one side and the need to increase production rate on the other, the A&D OEMs have to weigh their options. One is to invest capital and increase capacity significantly, but it is not easy for a number of reasons. The high cost of capital, long lead time, unavailability of trained personnel, and the volatile nature of demand require caution. And this is driving the companies to look seriously at another option, increasing productivity to get more out of available resources through all possible means.

This is where the new wave digital technologies come into play. Large aviation manufacturers are exploring innovative ideas like using mobile devices and applications on the shop floor to increase productivity of technicians and supervisors. This is the point of inflection, moving mobile devices from the corporate offices into the manufacturing shop floor. Leveraging mobile devices, not for emails and presentations, but as productivity tools to increase output, streamline processes and improve safety, while decreasing cost.

For example, one of the biggest aviation factory floors in the world is the size of a dozen football fields with room to spare. Imagine a technician working on an airplane electrical wiring system, more than thirty feet above the ground. While suspended high up in the air, he discovers the need to refer to a critical piece of work instruction or production illustration in order to get the installation just right. Often the worker would have to get down from the airplane and walk to a shared computer terminal a few dozen yards away to pull up the information. Now imagine this worker having to do this multiple times a day for a variety of reasons–to request materials or tools, refer to the call board, request a quality inspection, tag a completed job, or any other number of requirements dictated by stringent FAA audit and documentation requirements. Some have estimated that technicians in these large facilities walk anywhere between a mile to seven miles a week to perform these tasks. Multiply this by 30,000 technicians and 50 work weeks, compound it with an ageing workforce and you can get an idea of the time, effort and energy being wasted every year.

“This is the point of inflection, moving mobile devices from the corporate offices into the manufacturing shop floor”

Now imagine a scenario where the same technician is armed with a mobile device with simple apps to refer to the call board, to pull up work instructions, to zoom in on production illustrations, to request for quality inspection, to raise a concern, to take a picture of a defective part and attach it to a non-conformance report, or to tag the job as completed.

These are just some examples of how innovative application of mobile technology can enable the workforce to cut the chains binding them to their desktops. Even if each such improvement makes an impact of one tenth of one percent on the overall output of a trillion dollars, mobility has the potential to save a billion dollars through productivity improvement for the aerospace industry.

Of course there are multiple challenges to overcome before these ideas get converted into hard dollar savings–challenges around identifying the right use cases, challenges around creating valid business cases to drive investments into these applications, and challenges around the actual technical implementation and adoption on the shop floor.

Thankfully, the solutions to these challenges no longer need to be driven by a few smart individuals who understand both the business processes and the technology well enough to articulate practical use cases and build credible business cases around them. It has evolved to a point where companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) have developed structured frameworks supported by detailed Process Reference Models to identify use cases, validate business cases and design, develop, test and implement them to help A&D companies in their drive for a billion dollars in productivity savings.

The introduction of mobility on the shop floor is still an evolving journey for most A&D companies. The next step of course is the complete elimination of manual inputs by leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) technology. That will open up a whole new world of productivity and efficiency for the industry.

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