At Boeing Co’s (BA.N) Factory of the Future, immersive 3D engineering designs will be paired with robots that talk to each other, while mechanics from around the world will be connected by $3,500 HoloLens headsets made by Microsoft Corp ( MSFT.O ).
It’s a snapshot of an ambitious new strategy by Boeing to unify expanding airline design, production and service operations under a single digital ecosystem, in just two years.
Critics say Boeing has repeatedly made similar bold promises about a digital revolution, with mixed results. But experts say the overall goals of improving quality and security have taken on greater urgency and importance as the company tackles multiple threats.
The planemaker is entering 2022 fighting to reassert its engineering dominance after the 737 MAX crisis, while laying the groundwork for a future aircraft program over the next decade — a $15 billion gamble. It also aims to prevent future manufacturing problems, such as the structural flaws that have plagued its 787 Dreamliner for the past year.
“This is about hardening the engineering,” Boeing chief engineer Greg Hyslop told Reuters in his first interview in nearly two years. “We’re talking about changing the way we work across the company.”
After years of fierce competition in the market, the need to meet bloated order books has opened a new front in Boeing’s war with Europe’s Airbus (AIR.PA), this time on the production floor.
Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury, a former head of auto research, has vowed to “invent new production systems and harness the power of data” to optimize its industrial system.
Boeing’s approach thus far has been characterized by incremental advances within specific jet programs or tools, rather than the systemic review that characterizes Hyslop’s drive today.
The simultaneous push by both aircraft giants is emblematic of a digital revolution occurring globally, as automakers like Ford Motor Co (F.N) and social media companies like Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. (FB.O), switch jobs and sometimes play games in an immersive virtual world. called metaverse.
So how does the metaverse, a shared digital space often using virtual or augmented reality and accessible via the Internet, work in aviation?
Like Airbus, Boeing’s holy grail for its next new plane is to build and link virtual “digital twin” three-dimensional replicas of the plane and the production system capable of running simulations.
The digital mockups are backed by a “digital thread” that ties together every piece of information about the aircraft since its infancy, from airline requirements to millions of parts and thousands of pages of certification documents, stretching all the way to the deepest of the supply chain.
Revising outdated, paper-based practices could bring powerful change.
More than 70% of quality problems at Boeing can be traced back to some type of design issue, Hyslop said. Boeing believes that such tools will be critical in bringing a new aircraft from inception to market in as little as four to five years.
“You’ll get speed, you’ll get better quality, better communication, and better responsiveness when problems happen,” Hyslop said.
“When the quality of the supply base is better, when the aircraft build goes smoothly, when rework is minimized, the financial return will come from that.”
However, the plan faces enormous challenges.
Skeptics point to technical problems with Boeing’s 777X mini-jumbo jet and T-7A RedHawk military trainer plane, which were developed using digital tools.
Boeing has also placed too much emphasis on shareholder returns at the expense of engineering dominance, and continues to cut research and development spending, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said.
“Is it worth going on? By all means,” said Aboulafia. “Will it solve all your problems? No.”
Giants like aircraft parts maker Spirit AeroSystems (SPR.N) have already invested in digital technology. Major aircraft manufacturers have partnerships with French software maker Dassault Systèmes (DAST.PA). But hundreds of smaller providers around the world lack the capital or human resources to make big leaps.
Many have been weakened by the MAX and coronavirus crises, which followed a decade of price pressure from Boeing or Airbus.
“They don’t just tell us what hardware we can buy, now they’re going to specify all this fancy digital crap that goes on top?” said a supply chain executive.
‘A LONG GAME’
Boeing itself has realized that digital technology alone is not a panacea. It must come with organizational and cultural changes across the company, say industry sources.
Boeing recently hired veteran engineer Linda Hapgood to oversee the “digital transformation,” which an industry source said was supported by more than 100 engineers.
Hapgood is best known for turning black-and-white paper drawings of the 767 tanker cable bundles into 3D images, then outfitting the mechanics with HoloLens augmented-reality tablets and headsets. The quality improved by 90%, said an informant.
In his new role, Hapgood hired engineers who worked on a digital twin for a now-scrapped mid-market aircraft known as the NMA.
It is also taking advantage of the lessons learned from the MQ-25 aerial refueling drone and the T-7A Red Hawk.
Boeing “built” the first T-7A jets in simulation, following a model-based design. The T-7A was brought to market in just 36 months.
Even so, the program is dealing with part shortages, design delays, and additional testing requirements.
Boeing is off to a good start with its 777X wing factory in Washington state, where the robot’s design and optimization was done digitally for the first time. But the broader program is years behind schedule and mired in certification challenges.
“This is a long game,” Hyslop said. “Each of these efforts was addressing part of the problem. But now what we want to do is do it from start to finish.”