How Boeing is taking more than 100 years of history and driving innovation through the IoT
As the world’s largest aerospace company, and having been in business for more than 100 years, the continued need for innovation has been at the heart of Boeing’s success. With the increasing possibilities of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and more, this innovation remains undimmed.
Like many organisations of its size, Boeing generates huge amounts of data. The question, of course, is how much you can get out of it to improve both company efficiency and customer satisfaction. Ted Colbert, Boeing’s CIO, told an audience at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in May that companies have to ‘both improve the skill set within the IT organisation and raise the digital IQ of our business leaders, so they pull on recognising the tech enablement opportunities to transform their business.’
So what does this mean? Al Salour, who is speaking at the IoT Tech Expo event in Santa Clara on November 29-30, is a technical fellow at Boeing Research & Technology. His role, as he puts it, is to “establish strategies and systems for the enterprise production systems.” In practice, this involves automating previously manual processes, putting in sensor-based technologies, and establishing standards that will flag deviations from engineering requirements.
A McKinsey article from earlier this year explains how the company’s workers are now using wearables and augmented reality tools on wiring-harness assembly lines. Yet there is so much more potential. As Salour explains, while 3D modelling and model-based design has been around for some time in a variety of industries, from aviation, to construction, and to entertainment, Boeing is taking steps beyond the traditional use cases.
“Our effort will go beyond that, to virtually create our manufacturing process and make important producibility plans in terms [of] our facility and equipment utilisation before we introduce a new product,” he explains. “Our linkage to engineering design will continue as we manufacture parts, so we can compare physical conditions against their digital twin model.”
It is therefore an iterative, constantly evolving process which Boeing is undertaking. But there are plenty of hurdles to cross in the meantime. Salour says he works in a ‘technologically challenging’ environment, with advancements taking place more quickly than the industry can keep up, but adds the changes are ‘exciting and interesting’. Another issue, that of cost, is pragmatic – “I consider my contributions to R&D advancements will bring results but at the same time they must be affordable or else they won’t survive,” says Salour – but the other is comparatively far-reaching.
“We need to be able to trust the digital data,” says Salour. “The issue is for the developers not to stop early before their work can be fully validated. We also need to consider the cultural change in relying and accepting the digital data.
“There are important compliance issues and procedures that will not quickly change, and the best way is to accept them and include them in our implementation plans.”
Partnerships are key, too. Last year, Boeing teamed up with Microsoft to ‘enable further integration between humans and machines, leveraging AI to streamline business operations while enabling airline operators to be more efficient, competitive and attractive to consumers’. Boeing’s partners include industrial leaders, academia, and government-sponsored research centres. “We believe our investments will be rewarded through internal and external advancements and technology maturity from our labs to the production floor,” says Salour.
Salour is speaking on the topic of manufacturing and ‘smart factories of the future’, a topic he is well-versed in given the day to day routine at Boeing. Expect various examples of how Boeing’s factory systems are moving towards the digital world. “We understand many of our traditional efforts in planning, manpower utilisation, and production flow decisions can be simplified through connected systems and real-time information,” says Salour.
“We would want our operation and support personnel to have instant access to their work-in-progress data so they make better decisions.”
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