Six emerging manufacturing capabilities are helping the aerospace industry advance a faster, more powerful future, said Jeff Wilcox, VP of engineering and program operations at Lockheed Martin, and Brian Foy, lead for emerging capabilities at Lockheed.
1. Advanced Design Synthesis will leverage real-world data and simulations.
“Design has evolved from drawings in the sand, to blueprints, to computer aided design [CAD],” Wilcox said, expanding on a talk he gave at the Defense Manufacturing Conference late last year. But today’s designs still are largely based on personal experience, training and/or intuition.
“Historically, designers didn’t always understand the downstream ramifications of their design decisions,” Wilcox said. “There’s a wealth of information out there that we haven’t been able to tap into in the past—manufacturability, sustainability, cost, supply chain, factory capability.”
Now, emerging design tools, such as generative design, leverage artificial intelligence (AI) along with real-world data from the factory floor, the field and supply chain to produce parts more affordably, more quickly and at lower weights—critical for the aerospace industry.
“We’ll have ties to IoT connectivity across the product lifecycle,” he said. “The challenge is maturing these capabilities to integrate data into the design environment in a standard way and training our workforce to operate in the environment.”
Using generative design software, engineers or designers set their goals and parameters—including budget, materials and manufacturing methods. The software runs simulations and suggests the best design or designs and continually improves the design based on new information or parameters. “The computer suggests different designs based on what you’re trying to do,” Foy said.
The biggest challenge is a lack of design standards for additive manufacturing. “We’ve got collections of best practices as an industry,” he said.
2. Cognitive Assistants, ever smarter, eventually will be able to do more than remind of you of your sister’s birthday—they’ll be able to help get the job done in manufacturing plants.
Cognitive assistants are in play now in the consumer and business worlds. Hello Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Ross. Amazon, Google, Apple, IBM and others offer personal assistants that will, for example, make recommendation creating a photo album for someone’s birthday, Foy noted. Siri gives directions and a variety of answers to ‘What’s the meaning of life? IBM’s Ross is an AI legal assistant.
As smart as AI assistants are now, they’ll be much smarter in the future.
“Cognitive assistant technology is immature even in our personal lives,” Foy said. “The promise of these virtual assistants is evident, but we’ve all experienced frustration with what these systems can’t do today.”
In the manufacturing world, the technology is still in the research stage. In the future, such assistants will be available in the manufacturing environment, offering advice and insight on design, purchasing and allocating human and machine resources, Wilcox said.
“You’ll see it come into the work environment and understand the context of what you’re trying to purchase,” he said. “A buyer will have presented to them capabilities throughout the supply chain, such as costs and capacity.”
Beyond that, “a cognitive assistant would have an understanding of a problem that’s unfolding in a factory more rapidly than a human would, anticipating at a car manufacturer, for example, how a problem on the line would create issues downstream,” Foy said.
The potential payoffs are driving investment in the technology, Wilcox said. “There’s so much invested in it commercially. The commercial market is going to drive it.”
3. With human augmentation and augmented reality, super-strong humans now work in manufacturing plants. Encased in exoskeletons, workers become much stronger and can safely move heavy equipment they couldn’t lift unaided, Wilcox said.
And that’s not Pokémon Go in the factory—assembly instructions now can be visually projected onto parts as they proceed down an assembly line, he said.
“As you’re moving through the factory, it’s giving you directions: “ ‘Turn this bolt here. Lift this lever.’ ” Such systems, in development by Microsoft and others, will limit defects and boost efficiency, Foy said. Virtual reality technology already is mature in the gaming industry. Small companies are now working to adopt that gaming technology for industrial use, Wilcox said.
4. Designer Materials offer more options at the atomic level.
New materials are being designed and constructed at the atomic level using Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME) to have certain critical properties, Wilcox said. These include better heat conduction, better electromagnetic energy conduction and the most strength possible for size and weight—a key component for the aerospace industry, he said.
Graphene, a material composed of carbon one atom thick, was developed in 2004 and is being manufactured now. Other materials, still in research stages, are following.
Needs within the additive manufacturing sector are driving improvements in new powders and feedstock to enable the production of new components, Wilcox said.
5. Intelligent Machines will work alongside people in factories and help grandma get dressed.
The robotics industry is fairly mature, but most of today’s robots still work separately from people, he said. For example, robots collect merchandise to fill orders at Amazon fulfillment centers, but they don’t interact with human workers.
As the industry continues to mature, “Robots will be designed to sense the presence of people and will be able to work well in place with humans,” Wilcox said.
Research in Japan is helping drive advances in the use of robots in healthcare that will enable robots to assist the elderly and others with tasks of daily living, he said.
“The blend of artificial intelligence with robotics and sensing capabilities is coming together in the digital factory of the future,” Wilcox said.
6. Transformative Computing can offer the best of the computer and human worlds: much faster but with human capabilities.
Crunching the massive amounts of data now being generated in today’s smart factories—and deciding which data is important to crunch—requires faster, transformative and new processing techniques.
“If you’re going to succeed in leveraging all this data, processing all this data, you’re going to have to look at new processing techniques,” Wilcox said. “It requires a new computing paradigm.”
IBM has made its quantum computer, accessible to the public through the cloud. (These computers are faster in certain applications; speed estimates vary and include 3600 times faster than a super computer).
Biomorphic, aka neuromorphic, computing, which mimics the human brain, is further along in development and again IBM is helping lead the way. IBM’s TrueNorth chip enables predictive computing and pattern recognition and contains 5.8 billion transistors. The company’s stated long-term goal is to build a neuro-synaptic chip system with 10 billion neurons and 100 hundred trillion synapses while consuming only 1 kW of power and occupying less that two liters of volume.
None of these capabilities exists in a vacuum—all are working together to advance the industry, Wilcox said. An important challenge for all six capabilities will be to secure connected factories.
Advanced design synthesis offers great promise and may have the most transformative impact, he said. The technology is emerging as demonstrations from AutoDesk and other companies.
“Design is now where you can lock in cost, performance and schedule and get the most bang for your buck,” Foy said.
“We’re going to be able to make things in ways we never made them before,” Wilcox added.