How Can Aerospace Companies Take Additive Manufacturing to the Next Level with MES?27 May 2021
The aerospace and defence (A&D) industry is one of the earliest adopters of 3D printing. Most key aerospace OEMs and suppliers use 3D printing for functional prototyping, manufacture of tooling and lightweighting of end-use parts.
While looking to expand AM in aerospace, forward-looking AM users are investigating ways to enable repeatable AM workflow. Achieving repeatability and ensuring AM part quality, however, is still easier said than done.
So what challenges do aerospace and defence companies face once they have adopted AM? And more importantly, what solutions can help them overcome these challenges and reap the benefits of digital manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing in the aerospace and defence industry
The Covid-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented halt to the global passenger air traffic in 2020, leading to many detrimental consequences for aircraft manufacturers.
To better prepare the business for recovery, aerospace manufacturers and suppliers have turned to digital technologies, with AM among them, to shorten lead times, improve fuel efficiency and increase the overall sustainability of air travel.
While AM is nothing new to aerospace companies, it is only recently that the technology has become advanced enough to be used in functional aerospace applications.
However, the AM technology and processes around it are still far from being fully mature. While the industry is constantly developing new standards, materials and systems, achieving repeatable AM is a tough endeavour for most companies.
Find out more about 3D printing applications in A&D:
Five challenges to scalable AM in aerospace – and how an additive MES can help
1. Meeting industry standards and getting AM parts certified for flight
A&D players operate in a highly regulated environment. Companies have to comply with regulations around information security, contract pricing and project costs. They are also subject to audit and product integrity requirements.
The design, production and maintenance of all the aircraft require approvals from FAA in the US and EASA in Europe. While these regulations are critical for passenger and operator safety, they also make it imperative for OEMs and suppliers to maintain high-quality standards of their products and services.
The exact requirements equally apply to additively manufactured parts. While standards and regulations for 3D printing in aerospace are gradually developed, there is an ongoing challenge for aerospace companies in setting up the workflow that facilitates compliance and audit control.
How MES supports regulatory compliance
MES software for additive manufacturing enables aerospace OEMs and suppliers to increase compliance with regulatory requirements, like AS9100, by collecting, tracking and controlling live data about parts and processes.
This information allows managers to make more informed decisions that help improve management of the areas impacting product quality.
Another benefit of MES is design control. MES helps manufacturers ensure that the process is followed as it was designed by engineering. This enforcement supports the standardisation of operations, further improving traceability and repeatability.
2. Reducing lead time for AM parts and supply chain length
Record order books for commercial OEMs support forward production for 8-10 years.
As OEMs ramp up production to deliver their large backlogs, suppliers across different levels in the supply chain would be under pressure for timely delivery while maintaining quality and keeping costs under control.
Many suppliers have invested in AM capabilities to support faster production of critical aeroplane components, including cabin parts and engine components (e.g. combustion chambers, injectors, pumps and main propellant valves).
But to keep pace with the growing demand, aerospace companies running AM operations must ensure the right level of operational excellence.
Achieving that level of excellence would require OEMs and suppliers to integrate their supply chain network. The critical challenge here is that many companies remain unaware of the available solutions for AM that can connect different parts of the supply chain.
How MES facilitates digital supply chains
Creating an integrated supply chain for AM means establishing a digital, centralised platform for managing, routing and tracking jobs across different suppliers.
Leading-edge MES solutions for AM enable companies to connect directly with their preferred suppliers and subcontractors. By setting up the platform to be used on both sides, companies can create a network that simplifies communication with suppliers and enables the routing of production and post-processing jobs.
Advanced MES solutions can go even further to allow automated routing of jobs based on predefined parameters such as lead time and cost.
3. Reducing AM costs and waste of high-value materials
To use additive manufacturing in aerospace cost-effectively, companies need to ensure efficient use of materials. This, however, is not so easy.
Imagine a scenario where you start a build using titanium powder. Your 3D printer has been running for several hours, melting and solidifying layers of high-cost metal powder. And once the job is finished, you find out that the part failed and the failure occurred somewhere in the middle of the job.
In the case of titanium powder, it means machine time and material wastes worth thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, such situations are not uncommon in AM. While failed builds happen, aerospace companies should consider ways to minimise waste.
How MES helps to save costs
An additive manufacturing execution system can help aerospace companies save costs and reduce material waste in situations like those described above.
Advanced MES solutions can integrate with AM systems for real-time machine monitoring. So, for example, when an error occurs during the printing process, an operator can get a notification through MES and stop the machine before too much of a costly material is wasted.
4. Ensuring IP protection of AM data
Reducing IP infringement risks, especially for sensitive data such as design files and production parameters, is of utmost importance for A&D companies.
That’s why it’s critical to use systems that support IP protection and ensure that data stays intact when managing AM operations.
How additive MES enhances security
To guarantee data security, advanced additive MES systems, whether on-premise or cloud-based, are designed to meet aerospace-specific industry standards for safety and data management.
In addition to this, aerospace-grade additive MES has the internal capability for systems safety and secure data exchange. For example, this includes restricting access to the system for any person not authorised to gain access to the application.
Furthermore, modern additive MES solutions also support Single Sign-On (SSO) – an enterprise user authentication tool that enables users to log in to and access multiple applications and websites using just one set of credentials.
SSO reduces security risks in multiple ways. For example, users no longer have to keep track of dozens of passwords, while aerospace organisations can strengthen identity security with techniques such as two-factor authentication.
5. Establishing visibility and traceability for AM operations
The complexity and the digital nature of AM require real-time visibility and flexible control. And yet, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, companies adopting advanced technologies, like AM, continue to rely on legacy systems, like printouts and spreadsheets, to collect data and organise additive production.
Paper is a black hole for visibility, and data manually collected on paper is ripe for mistakes.
In addition to paper, many companies mistakenly rely on their ERP to bridge the visibility gap. However, ERP systems struggle to track and manage work adequately.
As a transactional system, the ERP works upstream in the production value chain. It manages orders and financial transactions, but it can’t capture the nuance or cause-and-effect links required in a workflow.
Strong visibility into AM production makes it easy to identify errors and uncover opportunities to improve. Here is how an additive MES can help.
How additive MES improves production visibility
The MES plays a critical role at the centre of the additive manufacturing operation, connecting shop-floor personnel, AM systems, post-processing stations, logistics, sales and planning. Its ability to align these different functions and provide visibility to key stakeholders drives performance and compliance across the organisation.
Essentially, it provides a window to all activities critical to successful AM production.
For example, additive MES enables AM production visibility by providing real-time insight into the production schedule and machine utilisation.
Imagine a situation where the manager can see the AM machines’ performance in a real-time dashboard. Equipped with the ability to see what’s happening in real-time, the manager can work with the operators to identify underperforming equipment, take proactive actions, and keep up the overall performance.
Ultimately, the entire AM facility operates more efficiently when the team, at all levels, have real-time production information at their fingertips.
Additive manufacturing in aerospace: Achieving repeatability and quality with MES
Additive manufacturing has become an integral technology in the aircraft manufacturers’ toolbox. The question, therefore, is not why to adopt AM but how to ensure its efficiency and scalability in production.
One solution that proves essential is additive MES. Designed for the unique requirements of AM, additive MES helps to establish a compliant, quality-oriented workflow. Furthermore, it digitally connects the shop floor with the rest of the organisation, collecting and disseminating accurate, real-time data needed to improve performance.
Ultimately, the digital infrastructure is key to enabling efficient AM. Aerospace companies can lay the foundation for such an infrastructure with additive MES and secure their competitiveness in the digital manufacturing of the future.
Discover how AMFG can help you
With system connectivity, built-in security and an extensive range of software integrations, our additive MES and workflow automation software offers a complete solution to help A&D companies achieve connected, scalable AM processes across their organisations and supply chains.
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