In the future, Boeing plans to twin immersive 3D engineering with robots that talk to each other in its factory, while mechanics around the world are connected by Microsoft-made HoloLens.
This is a snapshot of Boeing’s new and ambitious strategy to unify its sprawling design, production and flight services operations into a single digital ecosystem in less than two years.
Critics say Boeing has repeatedly made similarly bold pledges about a digital revolution, with mixed results. But insiders say the overall goals of improving quality and safety have taken on greater urgency and importance as the company deals with multiple threats.
The aircraft maker is in the battle for 2022 to reassert its engineering dominance after the 737 MAX crisis, while laying the groundwork for a future aircraft program over the next decade worth $15 billion.
It also aims to prevent future manufacturing problems such as the structural defects that have blighted the 787 Dreamliner over the past year.
It’s about enhancing engineering,” Greg Heslop, Boeing’s chief engineer, told Reuters in his first interview in nearly two years. We’re talking about changing the way we operate across the entire company.
After years of competition in the marketplace, the need for order deliveries has opened a new front in Boeing’s war with Europe’s Airbus, this time on the factory floor.
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury pledged to innovate new production systems and harness the power of data to improve its industrial system.
Boeing’s approach to date has been characterized by incremental advances in specific aircraft software or tools. This is instead of a comprehensive reform.
The simultaneous push by aviation giants is emblematic of the digital revolution taking place globally, as automakers and social media companies are bringing work and play into an immersive virtual world called metaverse.
With its next new aircraft, Boeing seeks to build and connect 3D virtual versions of the aircraft and a production system capable of running simulations.
Boeing’s plan faces enormous challenges
Digital mockups are powered by a digital linkage that brings every bit of information about the aircraft together from its inception and runs deep into the supply chain.
The company believes such tools may be key to bringing a new aircraft to market from scratch in as little as four or five years.
However, the plan faces enormous challenges. Skeptics point to technical problems with the 777X Mini jumbo and T-7A RedHawk military trainer aircraft, which were developed using digital tools.
The company has focused heavily on returns at the expense of engineering dominance, and continues to cut spending on research and development.
Companies such as Aircraft parts maker Spirit AeroSystems have invested in digital technology. Major aircraft makers also have partnerships with French software maker Dassault Systèmes. But hundreds of small suppliers spread across the world lack the capital or human resources to make the leaps.
Boeing realized that digital technology alone was not a panacea. Industry sources say it should come with organizational and cultural changes across the company.
The company recently hired veteran engineer Linda Hapgood to oversee its digital transformation, which is supported by more than 100 engineers.
Hapgood is best known for converting black and white paper drawings of the Boeing KC-767 tanker into 3D images. Equip the mechanics with tablets and HoloLens augmented reality glasses.
In her new position, Hapgood hired engineers who worked on the digital twinning of a now-defunct medium aircraft known as the NMA.
It also benefits from lessons learned from the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray refueling drones.