The polling results from an IFS webinar attended by A&D manufacturers in 2020 found that while only 12% of nearly 150 attendees had not made Industry 4.0 an enterprise-wide priority, the majority of the remaining manufacturing companies (68%) were still researching how these technological advances could help achieve their digital transformation goals. So, while the interest in 4.0 technologies was clear to see, the A&D market was still at the beginning of the adoption journey.
The development of A&D 4.0
Bridging the chasm from interest to adoption relies on positive results from early adopters prospering from deploying the latest solutions. Many manufacturers still lack the means to exploit “Aerospace & Defense 4.0” to its fullest potential, struggling to get critical data from more intelligent devices and equipment off the factory floor.
Manufacturing Execution Systems help elevate data from the shop floor to the top floor
This is where Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) help unlock the full benefits of Industry 4.0 for A&D manufacturing companies—from better production execution and quality control, to improved Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), and its essential role in simplifying the complexity of Defense Contract Management.
MES helps to deliver efficient and compliant work by digitally executing, tracking, and documenting each step in the end-to-end manufacturing process. MES is a key part of the “vertical integration” of manufacturing by ensuring data is accessible from the shop floor to the top floor, continuously fed to real-time dashboards and enabling control at every level of the manufacturing organization. From the supervisor on the shop floor, to the director of operations, everyone in the chain has real-time information for actionable intelligence.
A&D manufacturing follows strict requirements that MES data must match
The devil is in the details for A&D manufacturers, which MES data must be able to provide. A&D equipment is held to an immensely high standard of accuracy and safety—engineering tolerances for aircraft can be down to the thousandths of an inch, and this could just be on an exterior panel! The level of quality and precision alongside incredibly stringent tolerances are essential for safety and mission effectiveness. Failure of either of these elements has huge consequences in A&D wherever the equipment is operating, potentially causing catastrophic equipment failure to compromise mission success and even put the warfighter’s life at risk.
The setbacks of MES data integration
Separate MES is not conducive to providing the level of vertical reporting required in a modern manufacturing environment, nor able to provide the additional level of granularity and specificity necessary to operate in the A&D manufacturing sector. Working with complex point solutions with heavily customized integrations to solve these issues and move information across an A&D manufacturing organization is time consuming to manage and risks of soloing out data that would otherwise be critical to the overall production execution, quality control, and KPIs like OEE.
The MES lifecycle: From design to manufacturing
MES should be part of one software package that’s not just integrated, but a fully connected piece “out-of-the-box”. It’s software with built-in MES functionality that provides the essential digital backbone between the proliferation of smart devices and machines and core manufacturing planning software, seamlessly integrating this technology with the higher-level software used to plan production. In this way, open interoperable MES solutions enable full traceability of parts, components, and projects—from design right through to production and engineering.
As a pre-requisite, MES functionality should enable CAD integration, robust, real-time data collection, and more sophisticated integrations through IoT and RESTful APIs as a few examples. It also needs to support dispatching and shop floor operation, improved production management and tracking, and quality management processes. Then there’s the need to enable machine monitoring and performance & KPI reporting.
Leveling up automation in MES
Once A&D manufacturers have established this connected base point in a single system, they can then exploit new and emerging automation functionalities that unlock further intelligent insights and accelerate automation efforts within their business practices. From an MES perspective, this can include streamlining to improve product quality control and performance and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and historical data-driven work schedules and job completion time to improve accuracy for technical productivity.
Also, by combining IoT data with AI/machine learning, manufacturers can improve performance based on an array of historical data observations and transactions.
Further A&D advances – improving Defense Contract Management
Another common pain point for A&D manufacturers is working in the strict regulatory ecosystem associated with the supply chain for the U.S. Department of Defense, with stringent reporting requirements that are difficult to manage manually. Here, the benefits of an all-in-one MES and ERP system are huge. A shipping order, for example, would automatically go back to the ERP and then to the Defense Contract Management module for reporting and payment. Job done!
Within Defense Contract Management this streamlined approach between different operational areas of the business means A&D manufacturers can get automated reports done faster and more accurately—to ultimately receive faster payment.
MES bringing human capital benefits
A&D manufacturing, like many other industries, is experiencing a skilled labor shortage. According to Future Aviation Aerospace Workforce, the manufacturing industry needs 3.5M workers just for A&D by 2026. This is where a connected MES/ERP solution brings human capital benefits.
By improving processes with better feedback on MES data, instead of having to cut staff, A&D manufacturers can upskill employees for higher level work while the factory is automated. It’s a win-win from a change management perspective, as it’s easier to internally sell a process improvement rather than introducing an army of robots onto the factory floor!
MES is the key to unlock the potential of A&D 4.0
The widespread emergence of Industry 4.0 technologies has finally hit maturity in A&D manufacturing, but its full potential lies in its ability to bring previously inaccessible financial, operational, and security benefits from the shop floor to the top floor. Getting MES right is a critical component of A&D 4.0—particularly given the unique requirements of the A&D industry. For this reason, MES must be an embedded part of a wider solution to enable manufacturers to unlock the benefits of A&D 4.0 and vertical integration of manufacturing.
For more information, download the A&D Industry 4.0 whitepaper, and read the defense industry predictions for 2023.
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