Manufacturers turn to 'silicon factories' to save money

Globalisation has increased the rewards for manufacturers who innovate and to get to market first. As a result, more manufacturers are turning to the computer to design, test and refine products and processes "in silicon" before they commit big money to the project.

Globalisation has increased the rewards for manufacturers who innovate and get to market first. As a result, more manufacturers are turning to the computer to design, test and refine products and processes "in silicon" before they commit big money to the project.

A case in point is Bombardier, the Belfast-based aerospace manufacturer of Learjets and other commercial aircraft. The company has recently completed a pilot computer simulation project, the CRJ1000 flights project, to model the design and manufacturing of components for Bombardier aircraft.

The key, says Bombardier, was to combine computer aided design, engineering and manufacturing tools in a way that let the firm's designers, engineers and shop-floor staff work in parallel to create and build production lines to make the items.

The result has been a quicker start-up, fewer test runs to reach acceptable quality standards, and less money tied up for less time, said Brian Welch, Bombardier's manufacturing engineering manager, and one of the four-man team responsible for the project. "We now have a proven tool that we will use on all future projects," Welch told Computer Weekly.

Bombardier is part of a British government project to design and build next generation wings made from carbon fibre-reinforced plastics known as composites.

The £103m, 17-member project announced in May is run by Airbus UK, which has been making composite wings for the Airbus A400M military transport at its 8,000 square metre Broughton factory since 2006.

Instead of cutting and bending aluminium sheets, wing components are baked whole in curing ovens to exacting tolerances.

Airbus will design, test and build the wings in the computer before it does it for real. It will build on its experience gained from automating virtually its entire wing-building line.

Will Searle,research leader for virtual manufacturing at Airbus UK, says,"We have proved that we can go from designing the wing to packaging it [for assembly elsewhere], digitally and physically."

Everything to do with the line is modelled in three dimensions from the start. "The aim is to knock costs out and make conditions on the assembly line more comfortable for the workers," Searle says.

One challenge is that building wings requires a lot of manual labour that is hard to digitise, and is therefore hard to model accurately, says Searle. "If a rivet is slightly too large for the hole, the fitter will get a hammer and make it fit. But you cannot do that with a composite wing because you might compromise its integrity."

By tying the manufacturing system to its enterprise management system Airbus is able to identify and control costs better, and to see the impact of a design or engineering change on costs. This provides a better platform for decision making as managers can test more options on computer before committing themselves.

"Rate of production is crucial for us," Searle says. "We are aiming at a system where we can go from making 10 to 40 wings a day over a weekend, without compromising quality or scrap. The capital expenditure involved is so great that we have to be right first time. That is why we are digitising to optimise."

The government wants the UK to lead the world in composite wing technology, and to become the world's mass manufacturer of aircraft wings. Companies like Airbus and Bombardier believe that digital simulation will put them at the forefront of aircraft manufacturing.

Bombardier's computer aided design

Bombardier is using Dassault Systemes' Catia v5 computer aided design and Optegra plant design management software to design aircraft components.

The Delmia system combines 3D design and product structure data with that of other components to create an electronic bill of materials that together make up the product. This allows production engineers to model the assembly processes and to suggest changes to the product's design that improve its manufacturability.

The system links to the company's enterprise resourcemanagement system for costing and other data. This allows engineers to monitor the effects of changes on cost and profitability, as well as produce assembly documentation for shop-floor workers.


Airbus usesDassault Systemes' Catia computer aided design software as well as its Delmia product lifecycle management software. It chose Delmia to help manage final assembly of theA380, and is using both product sets in the £103m Next GenerationComposite Wing project it manages for the British government.

Each A380 requires an assembly space 80mby 80mand at least 25mhigh. The Delmia tools were used to simulate and visualise critical manufacturing processesto unify and integrate components from four different European sites for assembly inHamburg.

What do you need to simulate a factory?

A study at the University of Sutherland's Institute for Automotive and advanced manufacturing practice found that businesses need to model long list of processes to create an accuratemanufacturing simulation.

• Product design and testing

• Engineering analysis,

• Process planning

• Cost estimation

• Factory layout

• Ergonomics

• Robotics

• Machining

• Inspection

• Factory simulation

• Engineering and manufacturing data and process management

• Supply chain collaboration

Bombardier and Airbus spoke to Computer Weekly at Dassault Systemes' Delmia's customer conference in Stuttgart in October.

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