PLM Systems Cleared for Take Off at Airbus
Verdi Ogewell posted on October 01, 2013 |

The dream of a single monolithic PLM system that can handle anything is, and will remain, a dream. The reality at Airbus is far too complex, despite the claims that some PLM vendors make about fully integrated, end to end PLM platforms. With 20,000 daily users at Airbus, there isn't much room for experimentation.

The ERP, PLM and CAx-environments must be secure, not only now, but for decades into the future. Airbus must maintain detailed control over vast amounts of product information for 30 to 40 years.

VerkstadsForum recently met one of Airbus's top-ranking IT executives, Anders Romare, to talk about the requirements and the challenges of a design and development environment that has to manage everything from mechanics and electronics to embedded software systems - and where failure is not an option.

One of the key IT leadership roles in the company, related to PLM and ERP software from PTC, Dassault Systèmes and SAP, has been held for the last four years by Vice President of Engineering Applications, the Swede, Anders Romare.

His challenge is to find and configure tools that work together, can be used by thousands of concurrent users and can be maintained over a long time. The lifecycles of aircraft often extend out to 40 years, and in this there's little space for experimentation or compromise. IT at Airbus, unlike its products, is not something that floats among the clouds.

The Aerospace Manufacturing Group EADS, of which Airbus is a subsidiary, is in many ways the crowning achievement of the post-World War II European industrial cooperation. Today, this collaboration project between the former national manufacturers in France, Britain, Germany and Spain, is one of the largest in aeronautics. That places Airbus in a constant battle with Boeing for world domination in the development and manufacture of passenger aircraft.

Naturally, IT plays a critical role in the company's success. Airbus has certainly been successful in its quest to combine product development, IT, logistics and manufacturing. One of the leading people behind this is Anders Romare, formally titled Vice President - Head of Development - ID Information & Communication Technology, which makes him one of the top-ranking IT executives at European aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

Below from the left - Guus Dekkers, CIO Airbus & Corporate CIO affiliated company EADS (parent company of Airbus), to the right Swedish Anders Romare, VP - Head of Development - ID Information & Communication Technology, Airbus. In the back row from the left are Pierre Burgula, VP Manufacturing & Logistic Solutions and Peter Schoonjans, VP Infrastructure.

More specifically, it is the subject of PLM that occupies his workdays at the Airbus office in Toulouse, France. When we spoke with Anders, we talked about PLM in the broadest sense: the configuration of an IT machine containing software sub segments like collaboration platforms, PDM and CAx, as well as the connection of those solutions to ERP and manufacturing software.

One striking fact in my conversation with Romare is how often he uses the words “complexity”, “harmonization” and “continuity”. It's not hard to understand why. His environment includes nearly 60,000 employees from 100 nations; approximately 20 000 daily, often simultaneous users of PLM systems; a hundred suppliers; and products so complex that they pretty much define the word "high technology". The Airbus environment represents a challenge that lies in the outermost fringes of system heterogeneity.

Add to this the fact that passenger aircraft are highly regulated, requiring 100 percent design documentation, validation, and certification as well as product data that must be rigorously managed over the aircraft's entire lifecycle – a span of about 30 to 40 years. With this in mind Romare's choice of words is hardly surprising. At Airbus, There's simply no room for experimentation. The System environments - whether it's about ERP (SAP), PLM / PDM (PTC's Windchill) or CAx (Dassault Systeme's Catia) - must be characterized by "harmony" and "continuity", to be able to manage the "complexity".

Romare knows what he's talking about. He has a long and solid background in IT departments of global manufacturers. Over the past 20 years he has, among other things, held a number of executive positions at various Volvo companies. Four years ago he was recruited into the top PLM position at Airbus.


Q: What did you bring from the IT environment of Volvo to Airbus?
A: Above all, a good understanding of PLM, says Romare. Just like Volvo, Airbus has an extensive international business. The industrial environments of global industrial businesses such as automotive and aerospace have many similarities. Admittedly Airbus is significantly larger than Volvo, but from a general perspective the challenges are very much the same.

But Romare also points out the differences, such as the different corporate cultures.

Q: Nordic calm and consensus-thinking is the kind of thing that might collide with southern European passion. Has this been a problem?

A: No, I don't think so. From Airbus's point of view they wanted someone with the ability to drive change management in complex environments. The “Swedish model” of leadership has properties that are useful in this context. Being able to listen and build consensus is important in diverse environments like those at Airbus. It's also internationally viable, and I'd say that it's a strategy that wins out in the long run. Sure, it might be slower here and there, but overall, I think it creates more balanced solutions than if you all rush in different directions.

Q: Compared to Volvo, how far has Airbus come in terms of PLM?
A: Airbus is quite a bit larger, which raises some clear differences. We can't update our systems every time there's a new version of software, and there is at least one almost every year. Neither can we change PDM or CAD system as we please. Continuity is extremely important, and as a result, we have a fairly restrictive program strategy.

What this means is that while the systems might not be cutting edge, the setup is certainly good enough to effectively manage all development within the framework of Airbus's different product families. In this regard the company actually has a lead on competitor Boeing, which still bases parts of its product data management on an older legacy system (DCAC) that can't be run efficiently on modern hardware. And while the Boeing system has been updated, it's not nearly as integrated or cohesive as Airbus and their group-wide PLM concept PHOENIX (based on Windchill).

Q: What are the major software solutions in use at Airbus?
A: Catia for MCAD and digital mock-ups, with Dassault's Enovia VPM as vault is the foundation, says Romare, while we manage and control product data via Windchill/PDM Link from PTC. Manufacturing data is managed by SAP on the ERP side, in conjunction with PDM Link. Then there are of course a number of other applications for specific needs, such as simulation. But the overall foundation is based on software from SAP, PTC and DS.

For a long time Airbus has also been working with PTC's PLM/PDM solutions, and a few years ago the decision was made that the parent company, EADS, would also switch over to Windchill for enterprise data throughout the consolidated group.

How Airbus works with PLM systems
Dassault Systemes' traditional Catia solution is the main tool at Airbus for digital design work in MCAD and other CAx areas. Above is a 3D model of a plane in the A320 family, made in Catia V5. The airplane engines are purchased from different manufacturers. In the case of the 380 model above it is supplied by British Rolls Royce.

In the 3D assemblies of the design stage, Airbus treats the engine as a "shell" to which a number of access points for mechanical, electrical and software is to be added. The responsibility for motor the area is held by the engine supplier and the aircraft operator.

On the MCAD side DS ENOVIA VPM serves as vault and collaboration platform on mock-up level, but reporting under the umbrella of PTC's Windchill/PDM Link. All of the general process and data management tasks and things like configuration management are managed directly in Windchill. Even the bills of materials (mBOM and EBOM) are planned and configured in Windchill, for instance when downloading Catia product data, although these will not be accepted until they've passed through the SAP ERP system. Note that Airbus also uses a range of software other than the above.

Q: As the IT-platform gains in standardization, do the data streams gain in security, as they flow between the companies in the EADS group, Airbus and its hundreds of subcontractors and partners?
A: That's right, says Anders Romare. Internally at Airbus we're working with a smaller and more focused organization. Much of the product development and system services is outsourced to subcontractors. In fact, we generally expect that about 85 percent of our system users are external.

Naturally this puts significant demands on several things. We must, for example, ensure that approximately 20 000 users are able to reach and access the PDM data. Not only that, we can have as many as 4 000-5 000 concurrent users, in real time, that share 3D data in context. This in turn requires a lot of computing power, especially when you consider that important parts of our product development work is focused on simulation, something that we enable with one of the world's largest corporate-driven HPC facilities (High Performance Computing).

The Systems Engineering Environment at Airbus
Recent years has seen the resurgence of the systems engineering (SE) concept, this time in the shape of software within product development. The goal is integrated development of a product's mechanics with the electronics and the embedded software. It is hard to imagine a better example of this than airplanes. So, how far has Airbus come in this regard?

The question makes Anders Romare slightly defensive, as in his opinion, the software that supports this is currently underdeveloped.

A: Currently we don't see any solution that is powerful enough to handle the enormous complexity that the development of passenger aircraft demands. We simply don't believe that current software can handle it all. But that doesn't mean that we haven't developed other forms of collaboration and data sharing to coordinate the development of mechanics, electronics and software systems. The point of this is to enable effective data sharing in the earliest phases of the product development process. Those things are realistically achievable now.

This view is also echoed by Gartner analyst Marc Halpern, who in an article in the last issue of VerkstadsForum, said that while the big three PLM players - Dassault, Siemens PLM and PTC - certainly have initiatives in the systems engineering area, the solutions still have to reach the proven maturity required for things like aerospace engineering.

And this whole idea of maturity - or "harmony" as Romare puts it - is really important to get a product development organization with tens of thousands, both external and internal employees, to move at the same pace.

That's true, Romero says. The first priority is to make sure that what we already have works well. When it comes to CAD we currently work with both CATIA V4 and V5. The priority is therefore to harmonize on the V5 platform. So, when it comes to Catia the company makes haste slowly.

Q: Have you looked closer at the new V6 platform and the 3D Experience concept?

A: Yes, we have looked at it, but as I said previously, we don't prioritize the latest version. We currently have four different CAD environments that relate to different aircraft models, and considering that these solutions are current for up to 40 years, it's not as easy as just changing the CAD system. This is where it gets a lot more difficult for us in the aerospace industry, compared to for instance, automotive. But in time I'm sure that we will go over to V6, with the reservation that the way there is guided by the actual business value.

In general, when it comes to software we will always have a large variety of applications. With this in mind, neutral formats and standards for data sharing is something that we look extra closely at. And our data sharing with our development partners is world class.

Q: What about other important trends within IT? The cloud for instance?
Here Romare is skeptical.
A: We would never dream of putting key data in the public cloud. We would rather build our own inside our firewalls. Aircraft design requires precise control and it is we who have the certification responsibilities. We can't, not even for a moment, risk the integrity of the product data that we are responsible for.

But, he points out; we have hundreds of partners all over the world who always get the data they need. We will continue to send it.

Q: Finally - what are the main challenges for Airbus?
A: Three things, says Romare; First to harmonize the systems and find a way to extend their lifespans. We can't change every two years and we can't upgrade. The second challenge is systems engineering and simulation capabilities. And the third is to bring together our partners even more.

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