HomeSmart FactoryAirbus uses industrial IoT to build a factory for the future

Airbus uses industrial IoT to build a factory for the future

The devil is in the details

Today’s aerospace factory floors are very different from the noisy production environments of the past. The latest techniques, designs and equipment make modern manufacturing efficient, organized and structured, according to a National Instruments case study. Airbus is trying to take its factories into the future by teaming with National Instruments on a research and technology project that will automate the company’s many manual operations using industrial IoT.

source: National Instruments
source: National Instruments

The challenge for the leading aerospace company is that the manufacturing and assembly of aircraft involves tens of thousands of steps that must be followed by operators, and a single mistake in the process could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix.

Making a smart factory

To overcome this, Airbus decided it needs to add intelligence to the tools and shop floor systems, which will help to simplify the production process and provide improved efficiency. It used National Instruments (NI) System on Module (SOM) to quickly prototype these smart tools.

NI and industrial IoT

Cyber-physical systems and big data enable a smarter, operator-centric production that allows operators and machines to collaborate in the same physical environment, according to Airbus. What it calls “The factory of the future” requires the extensive use of a modular platform with a high level of abstraction based on commercial off-the-shelf modules. Smart devices are designed to communicate with a main infrastructure or locally with operators or other tools, but only when it is required to provide situational awareness and make real-time decisions based on local and distributed intelligence on the network.

source: National Instruments
source: National Instruments

In the case of a manufacturing facility, smart tools can help simplify the production process and improve efficiency by removing physical data logs and manuals. Operators must focus on their operational tasks, during which they need to keep their hands free for using the appropriate tools. Most of the previous initiatives linked to “paperless projects” were focused on “paper suppression,” or replacing paper with tablets, but they still consumed “passive/dead data.” Smart tools enable another alternative, “data in context,” which is generated and consumed continuously – “live data.”

According to NI, by adding intelligence to the airplane manufacturing system, the smart tools understand the actions that the operator must perform next and automatically adjust the tools to the proper settings, which simplifies the task for the operator. Once the action is completed, the smart tools can also monitor and log the results of the action, which improves the efficiency of the production process.

For example, a given subassembly of an airplane has roughly 400,000 points that need to be tightened down, which requires more than 1,100 basic tightening tools in the current production process. The operator has to closely follow a list of steps and ensure the proper torque law settings for each location using the correct tool. Because of the manual process, human error adds a lot of risk to the production. This is significant since even a single location being tightened down incorrectly could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run. A smart tightening tool understands which task the operator is about to perform using vision to process its surroundings and automatically set the torque. And the device can record the outcome of the task in a central database to ensure the location was set properly. With the central manufacturing execution system (MES) database and the distributed intelligence of the devices, production managers can precisely pinpoint the procedures and processes that need to be reviewed during quality control and certification.

Airbus is launching the development of three smart tool families that perform different manufacturing processes: drilling, measuring, and quality data logging and tightening:

Drilling Tool

  • Process surroundings with vision algorithms
  • Verify which material is about to be cut through
  • Update cutting conditions of the drill at each material layer
  • Monitor the drilling depth
  • Log the results of the drill at the current location
  • Monitor system health
  • Perform automatic checks/calibration

Measuring Tool

  • Process surroundings with vision algorithms
  • Retrieve acceptable measurement values from a database
  • Check that the measurement is within the parameters
  • Log results and provide follow-up actions if necessary
  • Perform automatic checks/calibration

Quality Validation Tool (Based on Human Decision)

  • Process surroundings with vision algorithms
  • Perform human native interaction (finger tracking, eye tracking, voice control)
  • Log results and provide follow-up actions if necessary

Tightening Tool

  • Process surroundings with vision algorithms
  • Set the appropriate torque/speed/angle laws for the location
  • Monitor the torque applied to the fasteners
  • Log the given torque to a central MES database or an enterprise resource planning system
  • Perform automatic checks/calibration

Airbus tested the NI System on Module (SOM) as the foundation platform for all of these smart tools because of the ubiquitous architecture and framework that it provides to accelerate the development process from design to prototyping to deployment. Before developing on the NI SOM, it was able to create a prototype based on an NI CompactRIO controller that allowed the company to integrate IP from existing Airbus libraries and open-source algorithms to validate concepts.

source: National Instruments
source: National Instruments

“We evaluated several systems on modules (SOMs) and embedded single-board computers (SBCs), and there is no comparison to the software integration offered by NI,” Sébastien Boria, ‎R&D Mechatronics Engineer at Airbus. “We estimate that our time to deliver with the NI SOM is a tenth of the time using alternative approaches because of the productivity gains of NI’s approach to system design, particularly with NI Linux Real-Time and the LabVIEW FPGA Module.”

The “Factory of the Future” at Airbus is an incremental long-term research and technology project that is critical to its competitiveness in manufacturing processes, according to Airbus. Rapid development is critical for the incremental approach of new technology, from initial proof of concept development to real object dissemination. The company says it has carefully planned this initiative over the past few years, and, with NI technology, it can accelerate the development process to bring its vision into reality.

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