Project VR for BAE Systems: faster production and enhanced training in aerospace
Experts in the sector agree that VR technology is set to transform UK manufacturing. And in a traditional industry such as aerospace manufacturing, where it can take up to 30 years to perfect the most efficient aircraft production system, the advent of VR technology, along with additive manufacturing, has had a near revolutionary effect.
Building the new
With a remit to provide global technology-led defence, aerospace and security solutions, BAE Systems recently opened its 1,000 sqm £8m New Product and Process Development Centre (NPPDC) in Samlesbury, Lancashire. Focusing on additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) and VR technology, the goal is to reduce costs and speed up manufacturing processes for military aircraft, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, BAE Systems Hawk and the US-led F-35 Lightning II.
A part of the Environmental Control System (ECS), for example, used in the Eurofighter Typhoon twin-engine multirole fighter jet, consists of nine individual components, all separately manufactured and assembled before being fitted into the system on the aircraft. Using additive manufacturing, the part can be 3D printed as one complete component, compressing lead time by 75% and delivering cost savings of up to 57%.
It’s another forward-thinking investment in future technology for a site that also has a celebrated heritage. Samlesbury has always been an integral part of the UK aerospace industry. Built in the 1930s as a regional airfield, it has been home to several of the country’s most iconic aircraft, including the English Electric Lightning, a supersonic fighter plane from the Cold War era, used by the RAF.
The NPPDC has now been established to enable BAE Systems to harness new technologies as part of a phased future roadmap, with phase one focusing on additive manufacturing and phase two moving into VR technology. The company has in fact used additive manufacturing for the last two decades, due to its ability to enable rapid prototyping of new designs. Now, with a new £50,000 investment, it’s ramping up output.
In 2016, the technology produced over 2,500 components, a 20% increase over the previous year. It now prints parts out of Grade 2 Commercially Pure Titanium using Selective Laser Melting (SLM), as well as Flame Retardant Nylon, used in Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), materials approved for use in aircraft.
The technology has many advantages, as Robert Forrest, Visualisation Lead within the NPPDC, explains. As well as rapid prototyping of designs enabling faster turnaround, the technology creates products that are both lighter and stronger and could not be replicated by traditional machining methods. It also cuts the time needed to make and replace tools for each product, making the manufacturing process more efficient. And this ground-breaking technology can also produce obsolete parts that are no longer being manufactured. Instead the part is 3D scanned and the data used to make a perfect match component.
From 3D printing to VR technology
VR technology is used alongside additive manufacturing in the new centre to cut down manufacturing times even further – visualising product designs in virtual reality rather than printing out multiple designs. In fact, the original VR suite was set up to support the additive manufacturing project, by helping to create the layout of the new product centre.
“The VR team cut its teeth on putting the centre together,” explains Robert Forrest, using the technology to understand what the manufacturing cells would look like and how they could work before building started. Although it looks like a simple set up with a projector, computer and large-size screen similar to that found in any standard conference room, it also features infra-red trackers, a large-area 3D scanner and the advanced software that powers the system.
“It’s a great collaborative space,” says Robert of the 3D environment with its high res screen and head-mounted displays that provide the immersive effect not possible with a desktop setup. Rather than looking from the outside in, stakeholders can be fully immersed in the project under construction.
It enables engineers to work with interactive models, rather than actual aircraft, and the space can be optimised for the products that need to be created. Aerospace engineers can look at virtual 3D aircraft parts, analyse how they fit together and hopefully spot errors and problems even faster. The technology makes it possible to zoom in to individual aircraft components and optimise the production process, simulating and visualising it much quicker, enabling cost and time savings. It also provides a safer working environment, as falling off a ‘virtual wing’ is very different to falling off a real one.
With the click of a button, the team can be transported from the Samlesbury site to a proposed new production line in one of the hangars at its sister site in Warton. Reviewing hangar layouts in the 3D environment makes visualisation of potential real-life constraints visible and easily correctable. For example, while recently developing a production line, the technology enabled the team to identify a potential problem with the platform surrounding the aircraft.
The original 2D design for the platform looked fine in the blueprint but, in reality, was too short for practical requirements. It is much more efficient to make the adjustments at the design phase, before time and money has been spent building an incorrect version. Re-ordering components in the VR world only takes seconds and VR layouts makes it much easier to see the correct layouts. It’s also possible to check the finer details – such as making sure it’s possible to move the finished aircraft out of the hangar for example.
VR training for the future
Alongside the NPPDC, a new £15.6m training facility has been opened by BAE Systems on the Samlesbury site perimeter. The 7,400m² Academy for Skills & Knowledge (ASK) provides training for apprentices and graduates, and further education and development for long term employees. It is fitted with the latest VR, robotics and 3D printing technology, and is home to £150k Kuka robot cell, similar to the manufacturing cells used by BAE Systems to manufacture parts of the Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II jets. A virtual reality ‘CAVE’ provides a training environment that can simulate a range of scenarios, from wiring aircraft to the design of major infrastructure. HRH Prince Charles has been among the visitors to the VR space since its opening.
The ASK will also be a resource for other businesses, including BAE Systems university partners and the network of Catapult centres. As well as acting as a collaborative skills hub for the North West’s engineering sector, its Science Technology Engineering & Maths (STEM) activities encourage and inspire the next generation. The “Education Station” facility offers education sessions for five to 14-year-old schoolchildren. “It’s important to share a positive message about science and engineering from an early age,” says Robert. ‘Once children have entered their teens, it can often be too late to change the perspective of how they view STEM professions.”
“The Academy for Skills & Knowledge is the single biggest investment in skills in the aerospace industry. In our experience, well-trained people are both socially mobile and very productive, which in turn generates economic wealth for the UK.”
— Chris Boardman, managing director of BAE Systems Military Air & Information
Trainees use the capabilities of the VR suite to follow a set of instructions building high spec aircraft using a handset with a laser pointer that can become a variety of tools, such as drills or spanners. Computer gaming techniques are used to enhance learning and increase engagement. Graduates and apprentices cite the technology as a reason to work for BAE Systems. “Walking in to the academy is like walking into the future, all the technology we have here is really motivating,” says BAE Systems Advanced Engineering apprentice Zoe Garstang.
VR: dealing with the challenges
Introducing new technology calls for buy-in at the highest level within the corporate structure and VR suffers from a historical ‘unfit for purpose’ stigma. “Ten or fifteen years ago, VR was seen as a very clunky system,” says Robert.
But it’s not just a cultural change. Once the investment is made, the teams responsible need to be clear about the early goals and the initial return on investment. For Robert and the BAE Systems team, it’s all about finding new ways of working. For example, by allowing its international customer base to use the VR suite on a regular basis, the company has already gained significant ROI.
“We’ve got a ramping F-35 programme that demands a drum beat manufacturing system be established. The challenge is about how we respond to these conflicting demands versus our more established products moving into the export marketplace, which requires more responsive and agile manufacturing,” says John Dunstan, Head of NPPDC at BAE Systems.
What does the future look like?
Changing delivery cycles are creating a different dynamic in BAE Systems’ manufacturing systems and in today’s market, relatively low-volume batch orders are being raised over longer delivery cycles. Countering this decline, future programmes look set to be significantly larger and have higher technical specifications. One potential new design is twice the size of the Typhoon for example.
This potentially has an adverse effect on the supply chain market, as a lower defence output competes for products with a high output civil aerospace market. A new roadmap is required for the future and the role of the NPPDC is to harness new technology to overcome the challenges.
“The whole essence of what we do here is making sure we have an “end-to-end” future-proof set of processes, which can be deployed into a project and operates as a shared service for the benefit of the business as a whole or utilised to support industrialisation requirements.
— John Dunstan, Head of NPPDC at BAE Systems
Words by Bernadette Fallon