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Aerospace Manufacturing Gets a Makeover from SAP


SAP’s Bob Merlo recalls visiting the manufacturing facility of a major aerospace company where workers were assembling a highly advanced military aircraft.  Merlo, who is the SAP senior director, Solution Marketing, Visual Enterprise, says the technicians were working from printed copies of Power Point slides.  

When the shift was over, the workers crawled out of the fuselage and handed their instructions to the shift supervisor – who promptly dropped them, scattering pieces of paper all over the shop floor.  This resulted in a lot of scrambling to gather up the sheets and put them back in the right sequence.

One would think that modern electronic methods have supplanted paper, text and 2D drawings as the interface for technicians, supervisors and inspectors to execute their work.  One would be wrong.  Even the largest aerospace and defense (A&D) manufacturers are, in many instances, still using paper-based tools to provide the work instructions that technicians use to build very complex products on the shop floor.

Technology for Technicians
SAP recently announced a series of new and updated products for the SAP for A&D solution portfolio in order to bring technology to technicians on the shop floor that is as advanced as the aircraft they are working on.  The technology also addresses another major problem and opportunity – globalization. A&D companies are setting up shop in non-English speaking regions around the world, creating a global supply chain that demands coordination and collaboration on an international scale.

The SAP solution is to create 3D work instructions based on CAD files and deliver them electronically via tablets and other mobile devices wherever they are needed.

Merlo recounts several hurdles that had to be overcome.  “Using them (the CAD files) downstream was challenging because the size of the files is not conducive to transport.  Also, the end user would be required to understand a CAD environment, something most people in manufacturing don’t choose to do – certainly a tech documentation person or maintenance and repair technician.”

The solution, he says, is to transform the CAD files into a neutral file format and deliver them via apps that are simpler to use and don’t require CAD knowledge. This enables the A&D manufacturer to quickly and easily create work instructions not just for assembly, but also for repair and training.  In fact, SAP is finding that training is one of the major areas of optimization.  “People learn more effectively with graphical content – they retain the information better, and their learning curves are far shorter,” comments Merlo.

The combination of mobile technology and 3D visualization allows end users on the shop floor to do all their work on a portable device.  Supervisors can assign work and analyze shop floor performance on the spot.  Mechanical manufacturing technicians can access their work instructions electronically and in 3D as well as taking care of other routine functions such as clocking in and out directly from their tablets or smartphones, rather than having to access a fixed terminal.

Is it working?  John Patrick Batache, director, Lifecycle Systems and Support at SAP customer Northrop Grumman, reports, “Due to less rework and more efficient operations, delivery times have been reduced by 15 to 20 percent for work where the software is used.”

From the Enterprise to the Individual
Magnus Bjorendahl, global head of SAP’s A&D Business Unit, comments, “We are helping A&D companies apply the principles of Lean and Six Sigma to information delivery. With the delivery of information on mobile devices, technicians are less frequently pulled away from their work areas, no longer forced to climb in and out of large assemblies just to update IT systems. The early adopters of these solutions have cited improved worker safety as an additional benefit.”

Bjorendahl points out that SAP has had a presence in the A&D industry for many years, working with all the large companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Airbus and Northrop Grumman. SAP’s charter has been focused on enterprise processes – making sure that materials, components, and all the other elements of the manufacturing process were integrated with the financial and costing side of the house.

“We’ve been very successful in streamlining the business from an enterprise perspective,” he says.  “Now we’re thinking about the individual user – how we can improve productivity down on the shop floor.  We are seamlessly connecting these two worlds – the enterprise perspective and the individual user who is now using tablets or mobile devices to execute their work.  This is pretty revolutionary for industry.”

SAP has changed the way manufacturing operations can be analyzed by integrating 3D product visualization directly into SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards and the use of the SAP HANA, an in-memory platform that allows users to handle large amounts of data in real time.

(Editor’s note: See the related Digital Manufacturing Report feature here.

A&D Companies can use a 3D model of the aircraft or assembly as a navigation aid when analyzing operational data, making it possible to identify waste and anticipate production disruptions.  The software has a multi-language capability to facilitate communications between non-English speaking A&D hubs such as Russia, China and France.

In whatever language you choose, the idea is to reduce or totally eliminate text-based work instructions – including printed out Power Point slides – through a combination of mobility and 3D product visualization.

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