Digitalization, because automation alone won’t do it

Airborne has optimized its production thanks to a holistic approach involving Consulting, Implementation and Optimization. © photo: Airborne International B.V.

The desire among manufacturing companies to increase flexibility, quality and efficiency is universal. Equally universal is the solution: digitalization. However, the road to get there is individual. Find out how Siemens is accompanying Airborne, a medium-sized company in the composite business, on its digitalization journey.

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Lightness, long-term durability, corrosion resistance and great design flexibility: These are just some of the reasons why composites are a favored material among others for aeronautic, space and marine applications. Traditionally, high-end composites like those that Airborne offers are made by hand. When managers at Airborne decided it was time to automate and digitalize, it was only logical they turn to Siemens, a trusted partner they had been working with for years.

Save valuable time

Going digital is a multilayered, investment-intensive process – but it makes sense. Depending on the starting point, manufacturing companies can reduce commissioning times for new machines by up to 60 percent. Engineering time can shrink by 30 percent, and for machine builders productivity time in mechanical prefabrication can increase by 27 percent. Indeed, at the beginning of the process companies often have the same questions: Where do we start? What can we achieve realistically? What are the steps for implementation? Siemens has created a holistic three-step approach to answer these questions – and to come up with a plan to ideally accompany the customer’s digitalization journey.

The fact that this offering is part of the Siemens Digital Enterprise Services portfolio is surprising to many customers, many of whom associate service with maintenance, repairs and spare parts. But actually, service includes more than you would think in the first place.

Consulting: Listening carefully to the customer

The steps in this approach are Consulting, Implementation and Optimization. During the Consulting phase, Siemens’ service experts find out what the customer wants to accomplish. The goal is to gain a thorough assessment of an enterprise’s digital maturity by focusing on the customer’s expectations, experiences and visions. The consulting phase is all about asking questions, connecting and finding out what  the customer wants to achieve with digitalization. It is the foundation to develop a detailed digitalization roadmap tailored to the enterprise together with the customer.

Increase production while making it more flexible

In the case of Airborne, two distinct goals emerged in this phase: On the one hand, Airborne’s managers wanted to increase the output of their composite line at their production site in The Hague, thereby making composite parts more competitive for the mass market. On the other hand, Airborne’s goal was to become more flexible for quick product changes, which would enable the company to produce many different composite parts at maximum quality and efficiency.

Implementation: Bringing digitalization to life

In the Implementation phase, a previously developed architecture – often including both software and hardware – is brought to life. In many projects, digital twins of machines, systems, products and production lines are created, among others to predict behavior, optimize performance, and implement insights from previous design and production experiences.

As a result of the outcome and the defined digitalization strategy in the Consulting phase, the Implementation at Airborne was processed seamlessly.The solution architecture for the different use cases included Plant Simulation, HEEDS, Process Simulation, TIA Portal, Simit and PLCsim Advanced. 

Machine learning makes the difference

While many industries already have a high degree of automation, the composite business is still an exception: “In our industry,” reveals Airborne CEO Arno van Mourik, “processes are fairly manual, because human hands are really quite good ‘machines’ here. Translating that into something static like automation is very difficult, which is why we are at the beginning here.” Airborne therefore took the entire leap – to automation and digitalization – in one jump. It involved translating human process and material knowledge into machine learning. Now, the machines “understand” how material processing impacts the end product.

Putting digitalization to the test

The goals that were defined during Consulting were to increase output and flexibility. With the implemented digital tools, it became clear that a robot at the press was creating a bottleneck. In short, the robot was operating at 65-second intervals, which was slower than the press’s 55-second cycle time. A detailed simulation showed that by optimizing the robot kinematics and the timing of signals from the programmable logic controller, the robot’s correspondence with the press cycle could be improved. This step alone was the reason for an 18 percent increase in output.

We have to develop automation and digitalization at the same time. Automation alone won’t do it.
Arno van Mourik, CEO Airborne International B.V.

AI to combine digital twins

And how did Airborne manage to become more flexible for quick product changes? The digital twin of product and the digital twin of production were combined with artificial intelligence (AI) to determine which of the millions of different manufacturing options for a product would result in the desired quality and at the same time be efficient in production.

Daniel Klein, Lead Engineer at Siemens Digital Enterprise Services, explains how this works: “AI takes all good designs and automatically simulates a day of production for each one. In the end, the option with the best compromise of design, quality and production efficiency is suggested.”

Mourik reports that the newly introduced automation and digitalization at Airborne are reducing costs by 70 to 80 percent. No-touch production and the simulation possibilities for both the product and the production process are the main drivers of these excellent results. Even for companies with already highly automated production lines, savings of up to 20 percent or even more are possible.

Optimization: Getting the most value out of data

The third step, Optimization, involves collecting required data and using it to optimize a plant. Specifically, algorithms and AI analyze the collected data and transform it into valuable insights to improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Airborne’s digitalization processes started around six months ago, so it is still too early to report about any decisive Optimization measures. However, Siemens and Airborne are initially examining how processes can be optimized using simulation tools, for example to reduce warpage during manufacturing and thus increase product quality.

But no matter what a customer’s needs are, one fact is at the core of every project: Digitalization is an ongoing process – there’s always a next step. That’s why choosing the right digitalization partner and the right digital approach couldn’t be more important.

Airborne produces high-end thermoset and thermoplastic composite parts and develops fully automated production lines. The company can either produce parts in-house through advanced manufacturing, or develop industrialization packages to be implemented at the respective manufacturing site.