Airbus Implements Industrial Internet of Things (Smart Tools)

  • September 26, 2014
  • National Instruments Corporation
  • Case Study

By Bill Lydon, Editor

The French aircraft manufacturer Airbus has stated futuristic long-range goals based on their corporate philosophy. TheAirbusway is a set of guiding principles that drive a high performance culture and become a top performing enterprise making the world's best aircraft. The company has a firm belief that through innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, Airbus will continue to meet their eco-efficiency goals and ensure air travel continues to be one of the safest and most eco-efficient means of transportation.

In line with their philosophy, Airbus is developing smart tools using National Instruments System on Module solutions (NI SOM). I spoke with National Instruments' Andy Chang, Senior Manager of Academic Research, and Ahmed Mahmoud, Senior Group Manager of Embedded Control and Monitoring, about the Airbus initiative.

The Airbus Factory of the Future effort is an incremental long-term research and technology project that the company believes is critical to competitiveness in manufacturing. They are using a rapid prototype approach to incrementally develop new technology from initial proof of concept to real application. Airbus views the automation of assembly line processes as one of the main areas of change in the factory of the future. The integration of cyber-physical systems and big analog data enables smarter production and allows operators and machines to collaborate in the same physical environment.

One of the key components for improving efficiency in the Factory of the Future is smarter tools that communicate with a main infrastructure. In addition, the tools communicate with operators and/or other tools to provide situational awareness. The result is real-time decision making based on local and distributed intelligence in the network. This application represents a real-world example of the Internet of Things (IoT) in a manufacturing environment.

The manufacturing and assembly of aircraft involves tens of thousands of steps that must be followed by operators. A single mistake in the process could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix, making the room for error very small. Airbus is developing smart tool families that perform different manufacturing processes: drilling, measuring, and quality data logging (based on human decision) and tightening. By adding intelligence, the smart tools understand the actions that the operator must perform next. The tools automatically adjust to the proper settings, greatly simplifying tasks for the operator. Once the action is completed, the smart tools also monitor and log the results of the action, improving the efficiency of the production process.

Airbus is using NI technology to accelerate the development process of the smart tool families. Sébastien Boria, R&D Mechatronics Technology Leader at Airbus, said,“We evaluated several systems on modules (SOMs) and embedded single-board computers (SBCs), and there is no comparison to the software integration offered by NI.” “We estimate that the time to deliver the system using National Instruments System on Module solutions is one-tenth of the time that it would take using alternative approaches.” This is due to the productivity gains of NI’s approach to system design, particularly NI’s real-time Linux core and the LabVIEW FPGA Module. Smart tools help simplify the production process and improve efficiency by removing physical data logs and manuals. Operators can focus on their manufacturing tasks and keep their hands free for using the appropriate tools. Most previous initiatives linked to paperless projects were focused on paper suppression, or replacing paper with tablets, but they still consumed what they call dead (or old) data. Smart tools enable another alternative, or data in context, which is generated and consumed continuously using live data.

A given subassembly of an airplane has roughly 400,000 points that need to be tightened down. This requires more than 1,100 basic tightening tools in the current production process. The operator has to closely follow a list of steps and ensure the proper torque law settings for each location using the correct tool. Because of the highly manual process, human error adds significant risk to the production process. This is important because even a single incorrectly tightened location could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Using vision, a smart tightening tool understands which task the operator is about to perform, and it automatically sets the required torque. The device can record the outcome of the task in a central database to ensure the location was set properly. With the central manufacturing execution system (MES) database and the distributed intelligence of the devices, production managers can precisely pinpoint the procedures and processes that need to be reviewed during quality control and certification.

Thoughts & Observations

The smart tool concept is a great example of automation integration and industrial IoT. Using this type of system, production workers can concentrate on the things that add the greatest value in manufacturing.

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