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Author's profile photo Thomas Pohl

Build Me A New Factory For Commercial Aircraft

How long does it typically take an aircraft OEM manufacturer to build a new plane model, from the moment they decide to make a plane to the moment the first plane flies commercially?  The only correct answer is probably “always longer than they thought”.

An answer that no one really likes to hear from an industry that for the last years is in continuous growth leading to industrial ramp-up on all civil aircraft programs. To support this growth in commercial aircrafts, OEM manufacturers are looking to industrial flexibility to support these incremental changes.

This blog will discuss what some of the leading manufacturers are doing today to address those industry challenges. The role of robots, wearable like glasses and how a real-time view on shop floor production can deliver significant business value.

Redefining Assembly Line Co-Workers

The automation of assembly line processes has been and will be in the future one of the main areas of changes. Parts of this trend is the progressive introduction of robots to perform repetitive tasks, freeing up the shop floor employee to assume functions requiring a greater skill or more tasks.

Airbus has identified 7 lines of work to optimize its industrial system by 2020. One key area is the increased use of automated techniques, which are already saving time in the traditional processes for identifying and diagnosing faults, issues or defects on the aircraft production line. And Airbus is going a step further, incrementally releasing robotic applications every year or so from 2015 onward. These include lightweight robots and small machining systems designed to handle specific tasks.


(Picture credit: Airbus) Airbus is piloting the use of a 2-arm humanoid robot at the Puerto Real plant in Cádiz

Digitalisation On The Shop Floor

As machines and robots become smarter, production lines can be enriched and humanized. New ways of working will emerge. For example, smart glasses and 3D visualization can help workers fulfill tasks without long training sessions. Shop floor worker can get visual instructions and data from machines on their mobile devices.

Engineers from Boeing piloted a program for Google Glass, including working with colleagues to develop a voice-activated application to replace paper products. “All these paper products instructions were in a database, and it looked fairly easy to pull all of that data and create an application for Google Glass,” said Boeing reserarcher DeStories. DeStories and his team are part of Boeing Research & Technology organization. During the pilot, the test workers seamlessly saw instructions in a view-finder, gliding through multiple prompts just by using gestures, such as voice control, the touch pad on the side of Glass, and the head tracking interface. And the benefits go beyond ease. Smart eyeglass devices could help Boeing technicians reduce work flow time, and improve training and ergonomics.

The Boeing Researchers say the technology could be used anywhere in the company’s manufacturing and assembly areas where paper instructions are required.


(Picture credit: Boeing) “Glass could easily become a ‘game changer’ for how Boeing employees complete manual assembly jobs.”

Monitoring The Production Line In Real Time Brings Real Value

Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. is one of the largest non-OEM designers and manufacturers of structures for commercial, military and business/regional jets in the world. Spirit’s customer base had grown substantially since their 2005 divestiture from Boeing, resulting in a $41 billion backlog of orders to fill. To address this backlog, meet increased customer demands and minimize additional capital investment, the company needed a way to improve throughput in the existing operational footprint. Spirit had a requirement from customers to increase fuselage production by 30%.

To accomplish this goal, Spirit needed real-time information on its value chain and workflow. However, the two terabytes of data being pulled from their SAP ECC was unmanageable and overloaded their business warehouse. It had become time-consuming and difficult to pull aggregate data, disaggregate it for the needed information and then reassemble to create a report. During the 6-8 hours it took to build a report, another work shift (they run three per day) would have already taken place, thus the report content was out-of-date before it was ever delivered. As a result, supervisors often had to rely on manual efforts to provide charts, reports and analysis. Spirit decided to use SAP HANA to accellerate their production line.

At one of the last SAP SAPPHIRENOW event James Cocca, at that time CIO of Spirit Aerosystems, pointed out that SAP HANA doesn’t necessarily accelerate all transactions, but makes a difference where it really counts. He explained that the true value of this modern platform lies in real-time planning. In his words: “It’s a game changer.”

SAP HANA reduced the processing time of one financial report at Spirit Aerosystems from 40 hours to 20 seconds. “That’s a 7,000 times improvement,” noted Cocca, “but you could never justify the move for a report that only runs once a quarter.”

James Cocca went on to tell how the real-time nature of the suite on SAP HANA can significantly increase throughput on the shop floor. “When you have a US$41 billion backlog,” he said, “avoiding further capital expenditure can save you hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Build Me A New Factory

When you want to find out how you can build a factory from scratch in aerospace you should take a look at the video from Airbus. It summarizes nicely how the company will move from its vision to reality in the near future.

Let´s find out soon what the answer will be when asked: How long does it typically take to build a new plane model?


(Picture credit: Airbus “The paintshop of the future” taken from the Airbus Future Factory video)

Take action now…

Leading A&D companies have already embraced these action steps and they are seeing significant results. In fact, many of the organizations that have done so will be sharing their successes at the upcoming SAPPHIRE NOW & ASUG event from May 5-7 in Orlando. In addition to presentations from key A&D customers, the SAP Complex Assembly Manufacturing Solutions (SAP CAMS) will be demonstrated on the show floor, along with other insights on how to run A&D businesses more simply. To see SAP CAMS in action please watch the United Launch Alliance video:

This is the second of a series of aerospace and defense focused blogs I have published on this platform.  See the first blog on “Why big data can help to keep planes in the air“. Follow me on @AeroPohl

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