Most modern tech companies were built upon a digital foundation. However, manufacturing has long fallen behind in this regard. Due to its emergence before the rise of big data and advanced computing power, few aerospace and defense industry companies have succeeded in going fully digital. Nevertheless, those that have done so find themselves reaping great rewards today. Fortunately, it’s not too late for your company to catch up. Every business can achieve a digital transformation with the right tools.
Within the fields of aerospace and defense, there are specific challenges that going digital resolves. Consider some industry trends and examples of successful and unsuccessful ventures. Completing a digital transformation is not the challenge it once was, thanks to modern technology and ever-dropping implementation costs. Learn how to take your company to the next level and secure its future as an industry leader.
Why Aerospace and Defense Must Commit to Digital Transformation
The Definition of Digital
The concept of a digital transformation is, for many business owners, nebulous. What does it actually mean to go digital? Just because you use computers in your daily work does not mean you’ve fully transitioned to being a digital enterprise. Complete digitization means that data can be collected throughout every one of your processes. Furthermore, this data must be connected across the entire enterprise so that the ripple effects of changes are immediately known.
For example, a digital aviation manufacturer can update a 3D model’s design, and the rest of the company should instantly know how they are impacted. Accounting receives an updated budget for the project, the sales team gets updated pricing information to give to customers, suppliers are notified as to the changes in parts required, and engineers understand how to modify the production line. In a digital enterprise, all of that happens in seconds.
Trends in Aerospace and Defense
Current trends have forced aircraft design to move forward at an ever-increasing pace. Boeing’s first plane, the 737, continues to soar after over 50 years of production. Compare that to the 777, which is expected to be replaced by the 777X after less than 30 years of service. As new materials and new technologies emerge faster, manufacturers have to, likewise accelerate their product development. The only way to keep up is to go digital.
When it comes to defense, the need for faster development is only amplified. Military technology is quickly made obsolete thanks to innovations by rivals. Due to rising military expenditure in China, the United States has shifted much of its budget to prioritize R&D of new equipment and technology. As a result, suppliers and contractors must be ready to react quickly to calls for new military hardware.
The Need for Digital Business Models in the Aerospace Industry
Shifting to a digital business model can provide significant benefits for aviation, space engineering, and all aeronautical companies in general. By switching to fully digital product design, businesses can more easily update their production lines if a client changes product requirements. Consider just a single minor change: Using USB-C ports in airplane seats. In just a couple of years, USB-C went from obscure to ubiquitous. Subsequently, most airlines called for proposals that included this new standard.
You may already have flown on a plane with USB-C ports. Digital companies like Astronics, the manufacturer of the EmPower ports used on most aircraft, updated their design quickly and got a new product out to aircraft manufacturers in record time. It wasn’t as simple as changing a port either; USB-C can deliver up to 60w of power which called for a completely new power management and distribution system. With a digital approach, they beat the competition to market.
Defense Contractors Benefit Too
As defense departments call for replacements for aging equipment, defense contractors are expected to step up and deliver never-before-seen technology at a faster pace. Making matters more difficult is the fact that governments regularly make changes to their orders without considering the impact those requests have on the project. A great example of this was the Pentagon’s call for a Next-Generation Bomber, or NGB. Conceived in 2003 with a goal for delivery in 2018, the project was canceled in 2009.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin couldn’t keep up with the project’s new demands. However, another company proved capable. Northrop Grumman was given a contract to build the B-21 Raider in 2015, and it’s expected to enter service by 2026. At around the same time that it took for Lockheed and Boeing to fail, Northrop is expected to succeed. Northrop has already proven its ability to design modern equipment with the James Webb Telescope, proving that digital manufacturing is the future.
Digital Failures Balloon Budgets
Although success stories certainly highlight the benefits of going digital, failures also provide valuable lessons. The United States’ F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project is a perfect example of how a lack of digital design can hinder a project’s development. Like other military projects, the F-35A was constantly forced to go back to the drawing board for revisions due to government demands. However, at this point, digital manufacturing was in its infancy. What happened to the F-35A?
Initially, a single unit was supposed to cost $50m. It’s now expected to cost well over $100m. After sinking hundreds of billions into the program, the US Department of Defense continues to back it as it has become “too big to fail.” However, it, undoubtedly could have avoided these pitfalls with a more agile design philosophy.
What It Takes to Transform Into a Digital Enterprise
How can a manufacturer in these fields successfully transition to digital manufacturing and succeed where others have failed? Many of the pieces are likely already in place, but they need to be brought together to form a cohesive unit. Everyone works on computers that produce data. However, that data needs to be collected and unified to produce insights and inform everyone else in the organization.
Furthermore, manufacturing still relies on analog equipment to build components and assemble them. Fortunately, these tools don’t need to be replaced entirely. It’s possible to retrofit older equipment to enable data capture and even reduce downtime.
Data collection is where digital transformations begin. This may require adjustments to existing business processes. For instance, instead of keeping track of sales in an Excel chart that doesn’t dynamically link to other data sources, a centralized database is necessary. Likewise, you should aim to track the time spent on various activities in the company. This is the only way to know how long it will take to implement changes in product design.
Collecting data is only the first step. Analysis is necessary in order to understand your data and benefit from it.
Your company likely already uses many different programs to get work done. However, data from these programs must end up in a single location. That is where centralized data management and analysis tools enter the picture. Data analytics software can receive data from different sources, organize it, unify it, and then proceed to analyze it. Using artificial intelligence, your data analytics software can even make projections and help guide your company through unexpected situations.
Cloud computing and storage have made it easier to implement this technology. You don’t have to be a massive enterprise to access these tools anymore. Even small companies can implement analytics using cloud computing, thus avoiding expensive up-front investments in tech infrastructure.
Digitizing Analog Technology
How can you digitize older equipment that was designed for an analog era? The solution is to retrofit equipment with sensors. Sensors are cheap and can be linked to data collection and transfer modules. You can even avoid wires with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. Long-distance communication is even possible with GSM modules using cellular networks.
With this data, you can take a preventative approach to maintenance and adjust your production lines faster. This ensures that your company remains agile and able to adapt to changing client demands.
Going Digital Can Be Easy
Although these changes may sound difficult to implement, we at SAAB RDS have helped many companies to achieve a full transformation into a digital enterprise. A successful transformation starts with a careful analysis of the company’s existing processes and infrastructure. When done right, transformation is easy.
Contact SAAB RDS to schedule a meeting with our experts and learn more about how going digital can help your company stay competitive in these fast-paced industries.