19/01/2017 12:11 GMT | Updated 20/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Digital Transformation: Navigating The Aerospace Industry Towards The 'Connected Aircraft'

In the increasingly competitive market, customers are always on the lookout for better passenger experiences and lower costs from the multitude of different airlines. This pressure is passed down the supply chain to manufacturers, with airlines looking to make cost savings to balance their books. In fact, research from the Wall Street Journal has shown that an airline needs 99% of revenues from every flight to break even. Tier 1 suppliers are therefore constantly having to innovate and reduce their operational costs.

To combat these demands, Tier 1 suppliers are turning to the digital economy. While new technologies continue to impact isolated areas and operations, linking these through digital transformation is the next frontier, and this is leading the industry closer to the possibility of the 'connected aircraft'.

Crafting a connected supply chain

New technologies are transforming the way that planes are manufactured. Traditionally, innovative manufacturing techniques have been geared towards improving isolated processes, such as enhanced component design. 3D printing and model-based design are two innovations that have seen the biggest impact, allowing for more intricate, lighter and precise elements to be manufactured. The next stage of digital transformation will go beyond this, connecting processes across the supply chain.

We see this in practice when looking at the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has about 2.3 million parts that are manufactured on five continents, across 12 countries, in 135 partner locations. Changes in the manufacturing of a single element could have knock-on effects throughout the supply chain, and so collaboration and real-time visibility across the entire network is paramount to ensuring production flows smoothly. With the innovative connectivity solutions available today, Tier 1 suppliers can predict future supply chain failures, identify where in the chain these are likely to happen, and implement appropriate preventative measures before incidents occur.

This represents a major cultural shift for an industry where airlines, OEMs and suppliers all hold sensitive information. But, as Tier 1 suppliers continue to see the value of connection, they are pushing for their supply chains to adopt associated technologies, such as cloud and big data analytics. When executed effectively, this connectivity can have a dramatic impact. For example, Boeing's development of the airframe for the 787 (and 777), used collaborative virtual design to slash time to market by more than 50%. By connecting the supply chain, manufacturers can achieve both cost and time benefits, with more transparency at every point of the network.

Taking the digital revolution to the aftermarket

Another area where digital transformation can have a sizeable impact is MRO and the aftermarket, as Tier 1 suppliers look to improve reliability, reduce maintenance costs, and increase business visibility across their network.

Digital solutions are at the centre of this, with the modern aircraft producing upwards of half a terabyte of data per flight. Sifting through this information to uncover the useful, actionable intelligence is crucial. This is because data-driven decision making, when applied to traditional maintenance procedures, drives efficiencies, improving and even preventing costly operations as a result.

A practical example of this is seen in predicting maintenance requirements. Using data transmitted from sensors throughout the aircraft, in line with pre-programmed safety parameters, maintenance crews can foresee the requirements of an asset before an incident occurs. As this technology develops we'll soon be able to stream this information in real-time, while the plane is in flight, so teams on the ground will have sight on immediate maintenance requirements, and can be ready with the appropriate solution before the plane has even landed for inspection.

While the application of this technology holds huge potential for the MRO industry, when this is scaled up through connected technologies, the benefits are further amplified, looking not just at individual components on a single plane, but applying this intelligence at a fleet level. By combining sensor data with maintenance records, operational records, field event reports, and other information collated from MROs, airlines, general industry benchmarks, field representatives and systems, aerospace companies can continuously optimise fleet maintenance procedures and reduce the time that any part is out of action.

Connecting the technologies of MRO and manufacturing

The journey to create a "connected aircraft" requires the joining of different technological innovations across the supply chain; from the initial design, through to managing the aftermarket processes and MRO operations. When harnessed effectively, the power of digital will shrink cycle times and reduce costs for Tier 1 suppliers significantly

By developing this "digital tapestry" of connections throughout the supply chain, with insight across concept design, manufacturing, operations and aftermarket care, Tier 1 suppliers can help their supply chains work better for them. The "connected aircraft" of tomorrow will be an assembly of digital innovations, fully integrated through intelligent manufacturing and MRO supply chain networks; delivered faster and more efficiently than ever before.