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How Spirit AeroSystems is Creating the Factory of the Future

The terms Industry 4.0, Smart Factory, Engineered Factory, and Factory of the Future are unique but related. They are each part of the fourth industrial revolution, focused on transforming factories through digitization, connectivity, and automated processes. Through the power of data and machine learning, manufacturers expect to be able to produce products at higher rates with greater efficiency and less waste.
At Spirit AeroSystems, significant investments in research and technology and a legacy of leadership in creating manufacturing solutions are helping to give definition and direction to the factory of the future and, in the process, enable the development of solutions for customers and industry needs.

Mapping Data and Technology

The scale of change for Spirit AeroSystems, a global manufacturer with more than 17,000 employees serving many business segments, is a multilayered task. The journey toward the future starts with a monumental amount of data collection and a move toward a real-time view of every factory function.

“We think of digitization as impacting material, machines, and mechanics, so, think about machines. We have hundreds and hundreds of large pieces of capital. We’re putting sensors on all those so we can monitor them in real time and not only see if they are operating but if they’re operating at peak efficiency. We’re looking at ways to collect data and use analytics to reduce the time it takes us to perform each task and reduce variation.”
Tom Gentile, Spirit AeroSystems President and CEO

“Moving toward Industry 4.0 is about understanding, from beginning to end, how our business is running,” says Kevin Matthies, Senior VP of Global Fabrication. “Today we have the ability to monitor a large portion of our equipment’s productivity, and that ability is growing.”
Transitioning from collecting the data to using it effectively is where many manufacturers are focused, including Spirit. “A digital factory is a fully connected production system, with fully integrated quality control and logistics. We’re defining what this type of production will look like throughout the entire value stream,” says Eric Hein, Senior Director of Research and Technology. 

From materials to machines to mechanics, Spirit is working to create a technology map for the future. “Implementing new technology on a large scale starts with adopting core, engineered factory principles that will define the new production system,” Hein says. “It’s not just about technology. We’re developing technology to support best-practice principles, not the other way around.”

Future Factory Principles

Spirit leaders list several key components of the smart factory, all of which are, to some extent, already being used within company operations.
Takt-Based Production Lines  Taken from the German word “taktzeit,” takt time is a lean-manufacturing term referring to a steady rate of production. This continuous rhythm utilizes all resources fully, including employees and equipment. One important way to accomplish takt is to design each workspace with easy-to-reach tools and supplies. “It really is about orchestrating the work,” says Hein. “All of the tools, all of the parts, all of the kits that employees need will be available in an organized, easy-to-access fashion to execute what they need to do and keep on takt.”

According to Kami Power, Director of Boeing 747 and 767 Programs, this principle is about keeping the line moving, but more importantly, about keeping people moving in healthy ways.

“It’s about engineering manufacturing processes and workspaces from the viewpoint of the mechanic. Riveting can be hard on the human body. But, by introducing automation where appropriate and placing everything needed in what we call ‘the strike zone,’ we’re improving the ergonomics and quality of the work environment.”
Kami Power, Spirit AeroSystems Director of Boeing 747 and 767 Programs

Digital Work Instructions  Another key to a well-engineered production line is the creation and delivery of work instructions that are easily translatable for people who may not have extensive manufacturing or engineering experience. “These are work instructions that are delivered in a way that can be easily consumed,” Hein says. “It’s important to deliver the right instructions for the right level of work, enabling employees to know, for instance, the exact five things that need to be done and in how much time.” 

Human-Machine Collaboration  Rather than the much-predicted future reality of a world in which machines replace humans, the smart factory will be characterized by people and equipment cooperating to enhance each other’s strengths. People program and maintain machines, and machines allow people to focus on higher-level tasks. “This extensive area of technology includes cognitive robotics, robotic pick-and-place solutions, automated drilling and fastening, and automated inspection and measurement,” Hein says. “One example would be an automated guided vehicle (AGV) bringing an inspection device to a workspace to examine a part as soon as it’s finished.” Rather than waiting for the entire unit to be produced, or waiting for an inspector to become available, the job is assessed for quality and accuracy at every step of the process.

Cognitive Robotics  In the world of artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive robotics offers a type of process automation in which robots “learn” from experience. “It’s basically taking the structure, scanning it, and then dynamically programming what’s going to take place on the structure,” says Hein. Utilizing software developed at Spirit, the technology is already being applied.

“In this particular drilling program, the equipment recognizes the pattern of the holes it’s drilling, reacts to the material in front of it, and continues drilling the patterns it has learned.”
Eric Hein, Spirit AeroSystems’ Senior Director of Research and Technology

All of these emerging technologies are part of just one of Spirit AeroSystems’ seven distinctive capabilities, in this case a group of efforts categorized as accelerated learning curves. “These are the things that we believe are key technology streams,” Hein says. “New technology, including robotics, must meet the requirements for accuracy that are needed to do the job in production.”
For Spirit AeroSystems, the drive toward the factory of the future is motivated by the desire to continue meeting customer demands, filling the need for the world’s pressing commercial and defense aircraft needs, and continuing to demonstrate manufacturing leadership in the aerospace industry.

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