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BAe’s factory of the future could halve aircraft project costs

09 September, 2021

BAe Systems is creating a “factory of the future” in the UK where it is bringing together advanced manufacturing technologies with the aim of cutting the cost and timescales of aircraft development – possibly by half. The technologies are initially being applied to the development and production of Tempest, the UK’s next-generation combat aircraft.

The project represents a multi-million pound collaboration involving more than 40 blue-chip companies and SMEs, as well as academic institutions. James Ritchie, technology strategy lead for BAe Systems Air, says the facility will be “the first of its kind for aircraft manufacturing. While some of the technologies are already in use today, it is the level of integration that really sets this facility apart.” It represents “a real step-change” in BAe’s capabilities, he adds, that will help ensure that the company and UK maintain their position in world-class manufacturing.

The factory, located at BAe's Warton site in Lancashire, will demonstrate a new approach to the way that humans and machines work together. For example, cobots and flexible robots will remove the need for heavy, fixed, long-lead tooling, allowing BAe to switch rapidly from manufacturing one item to another.

Intelligent machines and off-the-shelf robot technology originally designed for automotive applications has been modified to operate at the precise tolerances needed for military aircraft – less than a third of the width of a human hair in some cases.

“Collaborative workstations” will allow engineers to focus on highly-skilled and strategic tasks, adding more value to the manufacturing process. Sensors will identify individual workers and load optimised profiles for them automatically using wireless technology. Cues and instructions will be delivered to suit the expertise of each user. “Pick by light” technologies will guide them towards the correct components during assembly operations.

Production managers will supervise operations from a digital virtual office.

The factory will also incorporate advanced material flow technologies, including AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) and a cell consisting of pick-and-place robots, storage carousels and intelligent safety systems.

“This cell is dedicated to storing and maintaining assets from goods delivery into the facility as and when they are required,” explains Ismail Master, manufacturing development engineer for manufacturing technology at BAE Systems Air. “Full system integration facilitates the autonomous collection and distribution of assets to the wider factory and, conversely, doing the opposite in collecting and depositing assets back into the storage system. We are also assessing the capability to connect with other machines and systems as part of our vision to create a fully connected factory.”

The AMRs – Danish-built MiR machines supplied by RARUK Automation – will allow material flows at the site to operate autonomously. “The robots will work collaboratively alongside operators, distributing material line-side to assembly stations on a just-in-time basis,” Master explains. “The main advantage of the MiRs is that operators can focus on high-value tasks, instead of non-value activities like manually distributing assets to the build locations via trolleys.”

Production managers at BAe’s factory of the future will supervise operations from a digital virtual office

The just-in-time delivery of assets will reduce the need for storage space in working areas, optimise inventories and improve asset management.

The AMRs dock and undock autonomously, reducing the need for operator intervention. They communicate directly with cell safety systems, allowing them to move in and out of cells without tripping these systems.

Currently, the AMRs integrate with different cell systems to enable autonomous deliveries. The plan is to integrate them with an overarching IoT platform providing connectivity, data visualisation and mission orchestration.

“This will handshake directly with an MES to enable scheduling of asset delivery/collection based on the build operations,” Master explains. “A future goal is to link the MES to a dynamic scheduling capability that will enable advanced, flexible scheduling of material flows based on the current state of the environment, mitigating any process disruptions via real-time decision making.”

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AMRs allow material flows at the BAe site to operate autonomously

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