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Just in Time: AR/VR Spark a Digital Renaissance in Aviation and Aerospace

About 20 years ago, Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, identified the need for a hands-free, heads-up technology in its operations. Flash forward to 2014, when a device fitting this vision (Google Glass) finally appeared on the scene. Today, the aviation and aerospace industries are experiencing a digital renaissance, and the timing is critical for several reasons:

Demand is high

Demand is being driven by two factors: 1) Rapidly aging fleets that need to be replaced or maintained at great cost; and 2) New, more technologically advanced aircraft needed to stay competitive. (Boeing, for one, has a backlog of some 5,000 planes it is under contract to build.) Next-generation aircraft boast features like advanced avionics, noise reduction capabilities, improved interior cabin designs, and greater fuel efficiency. Aviation and aerospace companies are under pressure to ramp up production to replace customers’ older fleets and supply them with state-of-the-art vehicles. And, of course, as demand for new aircraft rises so too does the need to operate and maintain those crafts.

A talent gap is creating a need for fast, low-cost training

As in pretty much all manufacturing sectors, the aviation and aerospace industries are dealing with a skilled labor crunch as experienced workers retire and leave the workforce, taking their careers’ worth of knowledge with them. By some estimates, the aerospace industry is going to need to attract and train nearly 700,000 new maintenance technicians alone by the year 2035. More jobs are being created and more baby boomers retiring than can be filled or replaced by new workers. Aerospace manufacturers and suppliers are therefore looking for innovative technologies to maximize the productivity of their existing workforces and quickly onboard new workers.

The stakes are high: Operations are complex, downtime is costly, safety is crucial, and the market is competitive

Building aircraft (commercial airplanes, military jets, spacecraft, etc.) and the engines and propulsion units that drive them involves extremely complex processes in which thousands of moving parts are assembled in precise order, carefully inspected, and maintained for years. Speed is desirable to meet demand and for competitive advantage, yet there can be no compromise or negligence when it comes to accuracy and safety—after all, we’re talking about aircraft that transport hundreds of passengers across oceans or even dodge enemy missiles at over 1,000 mph. Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin and other large firms are all vying to sell to the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA and large airlines (the aviation, aerospace and defense industries’ biggest U.S. customers;) so errors and downtime are, of course, expensive and bad for business, and can also greatly affect human lives.

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To accelerate production, close the talent gap, reduce errors, limit downtime, and improve safety; the leading aviation and aerospace companies are employing wearable technology, especially smart (Augmented Reality) glasses. In general, smart glasses are good for complex industrial processes that are very hands-on, time-consuming, error-prone, and loaded with information—processes like wiring an electrical system or installing the cabin of an airplane. AR glasses and VR headsets are proving useful in aircraft assembly, quality and safety inspection, field maintenance and repair, and training. The technology is providing aviation and aerospace workers with instant, hands-free access to critical information, and reducing training requirements for technicians and operators alike. Here’s how some of the aerospace giants are applying wearable tech in their operations:

Airbus

In 2015, the French aerospace company teamed up with Accenture on a proof of concept in which technicians at Airbus’ Toulouse plant used industrial-grade smart glasses to reduce the complexity of the cabin furnishing process on the A330 final assembly line, decreasing the time required to complete the task and improving accuracy.

Sans smart glasses, operators would have to go by complex drawings to mark the position of seats and other fittings on the cabin floor. With Augmented Reality, a task that required several people over several days can be completed by a single worker in a matter of hours, with millimeter precision and 0 errors.

Airbus went ahead with this application: Technicians today use Vuzix smart glasses to bring up individual cabin plans, customization information and other AR items over their view of the cabin marking zone. The solution also validates each mark that is made, checking for accuracy and quality. The aerospace giant is looking to expand its use of smart glasses to other aircraft assembly lines (ex. in mounting flight equipment on the No. 2 A330neo) and other Airbus divisions.

Boeing

Every Boeing plane contains thousands of wires that connect its different electrical systems. Workers construct large portions of this wiring – “wire harnesses” – at a time—a seemingly monumental task demanding intense concentration. For years, they worked off PDF-based assembly instructions on laptops to locate the right wires and connect them in the right sequence. This requires shifting one’s hands and attention constantly between the harness being wired and the “roadmap” on the computer screen.

In 2016, Boeing carried out a Google Glass pilot with Upskill (then APX Labs,) in which the company saw a 25% improvement in performance in wire harness assembly. Today, the company is using smart glasses powered by Upskill’s Skylight platform to deliver heads-up, hands-free instructions to wire harness workers in real time, helping them work faster with an error rate of nearly zero. Technicians use gesture and voice commands to view the assembly roadmap for each order in their smart glasses display, access instructional videos, and receive remote expert assistance.

Boeing believes the technology could be used anywhere its workers rely on paper instructions, helping the company deliver planes faster. AR/VR are also significantly cutting training times and assisting with product development. For instance, HoloLens is proving useful in the development of Starliner, a small crew transport module for the ISS.

Boeing’s Brian Laughlin will lead a thought-provoking closing brainstorm on Day One of EWTS Fall 2017

GE Aviation

General Electric is using Augmented Reality and other IoT technologies in multiple areas of its far-ranging operations. At GE Aviation, mechanics recently tested a solution consisting of Upskill’s AR platform on Glass Enterprise Edition and a connected (WiFi-enabled) torque wrench.

The pilot involved 15 mechanics at GE Aviation’s Cincinnati manufacturing facility, each receiving step-by-step instructions and guiding visuals via Glass during routine engine assembly and maintenance tasks. At any step requiring the use of the smart wrench, the Skylight solution ensured the worker tightened the bolt properly, automatically verifying and recording every torqued nut in real time.

GE Aviation mechanics normally use paper- or computer-based instructions for tasks, and have to walk away from the job whenever they need to document their work. With smart glasses, workers were 8-12% more efficient, able to follow instructions in their line of sight and automatically document steps thanks to the device’s built-in camera. And reducing errors in assembly and maintenance saves GE and its customers millions of dollars.

Lockheed Martin

In early 2015 it came out that Lockheed Martin was trialing the Epson Moverio BT-200 glasses with partner NGRAIN, to provide real-time visuals to its engineers during assembly of the company’s F-35 fighter jets and ensure every component be installed in the right place. Previously, only a team of experienced technicians could do the job, but with Augmented Reality an engineer with little training can follow renderings with part numbers and ordered instructions seen as overlay images through his/her smart glasses, right on the plane being built.

In the trial, Lockheed engineers were able to work 30% faster and with 96% accuracy. Those workers were learning by doing on the job as opposed to training in a classroom environment, which amounted to less time and cost for training. And although increased accuracy means fewer repairs, the AR solution could be used to speed up the repair process, too, from days- to just hours-long, with one engineer annotating another’s field of view. At the time, however, Lockheed acknowledged that getting the technology onto actual (secured) military bases would be difficult.

Lockheed is also interested in Virtual Reality, seeing AR/VR as key to lowering acquisition costs (all costs from the design/construction phase of a ship to when the vessel is decommissioned.) The company is applying VR to the design of radar systems for navy ships. The challenge lies in integrating the radar system with a ship’s other systems, which requires very precise installation. VR can help identify errors and issues during the design stage and prevent expensive corrections.

Using HTC Vive headsets, engineers can virtually walk through digital mock-ups of a ship’s control rooms and assess things like accessibility to equipment and lighting. Lockheed is also using Microsoft’s HoloLens to assist young naval engineers with maintenance tasks at sea—much more effective than a dense manual.

*Learn more about this application from Richard Rabbitz of Lockheed Martin Rotary Mission Systems (RMS) at EWTS Fall ‘17

Lockheed is allegedly saving $10 million a year from its use of AR/VR in the production line of its space assets, as well, by using devices like the Oculus Rift to evaluate human factors and catch engineering mistakes early. For the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and GPS 3 satellite system, Lockheed ran virtual simulations in which a team of engineers rehearsed assembling the vehicles in order to identify issues and improvements. A network platform allows engineers from all over to participate, saving the time and money of travelling.

Last but not least, Lockheed Martin is also actively developing and testing commercial industrial exoskeletons. Keith Maxwell, the Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed, attested to this at the Spring 2017 EWTS. The FORTIS exoskeleton is an unpowered, lightweight suit, the arm of which – the Fortis Tool Arm – is available as a separate product for operating heavy power tools with less risk of muscle fatigue and injury.

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While Augmented Reality has been around for decades in the form of pilots’ HMDs, only now has the technology advanced enough to become a standard tool of engineers, mechanics and aircraft operators across aviation and aerospace operations. In a high-tech industry like aerospace, AR/VR are critical for keeping up production during a mass talent exodus from the workforce. Workers won’t need years of experience to build a plane if they have on-demand access to instructions, reference materials, tutorials and expert help in their field of view.

 

The Fall Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place October 18-19, 2017 in Boston, MA is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations. 

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