What is digital manufacturing for engineers in aerospace?

Here we look at the basic concept of digital manufacturing, its core principles and the many benefits it offers, with particular focus on its applications in the aerospace sector.

Digital technologies are transforming aerospace products and services at Airbus SE (Image: Airbus SAS 2024)

It’s no secret the advent of digital manufacturing has revolutionized traditional production methods, offering levels of efficiency, flexibility and innovation that were unattainable even just a few years ago.

Defining Digital Manufacturing

Digital manufacturing, often referred to as intelligent manufacturing or Industry 4.0, is is comprised of a number of technologies and processes that leverage digital data and advanced automation to streamline design and production workflows with the goal being enhanced operational performance.

At its core, digital manufacturing integrates technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), connected devices (the Internet of Things), additive manufacturing (3D printing), robotics, and cloud computing to optimize every facet of the manufacturing lifecycle, from design and prototyping to production and maintenance.

Core Principles of Digital Manufacturing

Several key principles underpin the ethos of digital manufacturing:

Interconnectivity: Digital manufacturing systems are characterized by seamless connectivity between various components and stages of the production process. This facilitates real-time data exchange, enabling agile decision-making and adaptive responses to changing demands.

Data-driven decision making: Central to digital manufacturing is the utilization of the vast quantities of data generated at every stage of the manufacturing process. By properly harnessing advanced analytics and AI algorithms, manufacturers can derive actionable insights, optimize operational efficiencies and drive continuous improvement. This is by far the most challenging component of digital manufacturing, both because of the amount of data that is generated and the required expertise to generate useful insights from the analysis.

Flexibility and customization: Unlike traditional manufacturing that focuses on making the same product repeatedly, digital manufacturing thrives on flexibility and customization. Modular production systems and agile workflows help manufacturers swiftly adapt to evolving customer preferences and market dynamics, enabling rapid deployment of tailored products and solutions.

Advanced automation: If data is the brains of digital manufacturing, automation is the brawn. The latest generation of manufacturing automation was designed to handle the seamless integration of physical and digital systems. Robotics, autonomous vehicles and intelligent machines play a pivotal role in automating repetitive tasks, enhancing productivity and minimizing errors.

Digital manufacturing in aerospace

There are few industries that benefit from the value delivered from digital manufacturing more than the aerospace sector. From continuous innovation in designs to the need for high precision and quality, here are the key factors that make digital manufacturing a natural fit for the aerospace sector:

Weight reduction and material optimization: By leveraging advanced simulation tools and generative design algorithms, aerospace engineers can optimize component geometries for enhanced strength-to-weight ratios to design lightweight structures using innovative materials, reducing fuel consumption and operational costs while improving aircraft performance.

Accelerated time-to-market: Digital manufacturing expedites the product development lifecycle, enabling aerospace manufacturers to rapidly prototype, iterate and scale production. Virtual prototyping, additive manufacturing and digital twin technologies facilitate rapid design validation, shortening time-to-market, offsetting the time spent meeting regulatory and quality assurance requirements

Enhanced supply chain resilience: The interconnected nature of digital manufacturing fosters greater resilience within the aerospace supply chain. Real-time visibility into inventory levels, demand forecasts and production schedules enables proactive risk management and agile supply chain orchestration, mitigating disruptions and optimizing inventory levels and the associated costs.

Precision engineering and quality assurance: Digital manufacturing techniques help aerospace engineers achieve high levels of precision and quality assurance compared to standard contemporary manufacturing practices. Advanced metrology systems, in-process monitoring, and non-destructive testing techniques ensure the adherence to stringent quality standards, improving product reliability, safety and regulatory compliance.

Sustainability: Digital manufacturing makes it easier for companies to adopt sustainable practices within the aerospace industry. Additive manufacturing technologies produce complex, lightweight components with minimal material waste, while digital optimization techniques improve energy consumption and resource utilization throughout the manufacturing process, contributing to sustainability metrics.

Indeed, digital manufacturing is lauded as a paradigm shift in the way aerospace engineers conceptualize, design and produce next-generation aircraft and aerospace systems. By embracing the core principles of interconnectivity, data-driven decision making, flexibility and automation, aerospace manufacturers can unlock benefits ranging from weight reduction and accelerated time-to-market to enhanced supply chain resilience and sustainability. As the industry continues to evolve, digital manufacturing will be the driving force behind the next wave of transformative change across the aerospace ecosystem.