Boeing wants to build its next plane in the virtual world. How will it work?

Boeing enters 2022 and is fighting to reaffirm its dominance in engineering. (To file)

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At Boeing Co’s Factory of the Future, immersive 3D engineering designs will be paired with robots that talk to each other, while mechanics around the world will be linked by $ 3,500 HoloLens headsets made by Microsoft Corp.

This is a snapshot of an ambitious new strategy by Boeing to unify sprawling air design, production and services operations under a single digital ecosystem – in as little as two years.

Critics say Boeing has made similar bold commitments on a digital revolution on multiple occasions, with mixed results. But insiders say the overarching goals of improving quality and safety have become increasingly urgent and important as the company tackles multiple threats.

The aircraft maker enters 2022 and is fighting to reassert its dominance in engineering after the 737 MAX crisis, while also laying the groundwork for a future aircraft program over the next decade – a $ 15 billion bet. It also aims to prevent future manufacturing issues, such as the structural defects that plagued its 787 Dreamliner over the past year.

“It’s about strengthening engineering,” Boeing chief engineer Greg Hyslop told Reuters in his first interview in nearly two years. “We are talking about changing the way we work across the business.”

After years of fierce competition in the market, the need to deliver inflated order books has opened a new front in Boeing’s war with the European Airbus, this time in the factory.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, former director of automotive research, is committed to “inventing new production systems and leveraging the power of data” to optimize his industrial system.

Boeing’s approach so far has been marked by incremental advancements within specific jet programs or tooling, rather than the systemic overhaul that characterizes Hyslop’s push today.

The simultaneous push from the two airplane giants is emblematic of a digital revolution happening on a global scale, as automakers like Ford Motor Co and social media companies like Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms Inc move their work and play in an immersive virtual world sometimes called the metaverse.

So how does the metaverse – a shared digital space often using virtual reality or augmented reality and accessible via the internet – work in aviation?

Like Airbus, Boeing’s holy grail for its next new aircraft is to build and link virtual three-dimensional “digital binoculars” replicas of the jet and the production system capable of running simulations.

The digital mockups are supported by a “digital thread” that pulls together every piece of information about the aircraft from its inception – from airline requirements to millions of parts, to thousands of pages of certification documents – spanning deep into the supply chain.

The overhaul of archaic paper practices could bring about powerful changes.

More than 70% of quality issues at Boeing are due to some sort of design issue, Hyslop said. Boeing believes such tools will be essential in bringing a new aircraft to market since its inception in as little as four or five years.

“You will get speed, you will get improved quality, better communication and better responsiveness to issues,” Hyslop said.

“When the quality of the supply base is better, when the construction of the aircraft goes more smoothly, when you minimize rework, it results in financial performance.”

Huge challenge

Still, the plan faces huge challenges.

Skeptics are reporting technical issues with Boeing’s 777X mini-jumbo and T-7A RedHawk military trainer jet, which were developed using digital tools.

Boeing has also placed too much emphasis on shareholder returns at the expense of engineering dominance and continues to cut R&D spending, said Richard Aboulafia, analyst at Teal Group.

“Is it worth continuing? By all means,” Aboulafia said. “Will this solve all of their problems?” No.

Behemoths like aircraft parts maker Spirit AeroSystems have already invested in digital technology. The major aircraft manufacturers have partnerships with the French software manufacturer Dassault Systèmes. But hundreds of small vendors around the world lack the capital or human resources to make big leaps.

Many have been weakened by the MAX and coronavirus crises, which followed a decade of pressure on prices from Boeing or Airbus.

“They’re not just telling us what hardware we can buy, they’re now going to specify all this fancy digital junk on top of it?” Said a supply chain official.

“A long game”

Boeing itself has realized that digital technology alone is not a panacea. This must be accompanied by organizational and cultural changes throughout the company, according to industry sources.

Boeing recently hired senior engineer Linda Hapgood to oversee the “digital transformation,” which an industry source said was supported by more than 100 engineers.

Hapgood is best known for turning black-and-white paper drawings of the 767 tanker’s wiring harnesses into 3D images, and then outfitting mechanics with HoloLens augmented reality tablets and headsets. The quality has improved by 90%, an insider said.

In his new role, Hapgood hired engineers who worked on a digital twin for a now-scrapped mid-range aircraft known as the NMA.

It also draws on lessons learned from the MQ-25 aerial refueling drone and the T-7A Red Hawk.

Boeing “built” the first T-7A jets in simulation, following a model-based design. The T-7A hit the market in just 36 months.

Despite this, the program is grappling with parts shortages, design delays, and additional testing requirements.

Boeing is off to a good start with its 777X wing factory in Washington state, where configuration and optimization of the robot was first done digitally. But the larger program is years behind schedule and mired in the challenges of certification.

“It’s a long game,” Hyslop said. “Each of these efforts solved part of the problem. But now what we want to do is do it end to end.”

(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)