The metaverse craze is the new norm and while everybody is making virtual purchases and owning properties in the virtual world, Boeing is the newest kid on the block.
The airplane manufacturer is planning a virtual factory that can be accessed via Microsoft’s HoloLens.
It is a snapshot of an ambitious new Boeing strategy to unify sprawling design, production, and airline services operations under a single digital ecosystem – in as little as two years.
Some critics are saying something different despite the fact that the airplane maker had always made similar pledges whenever there is a new tech craze in town.
But insiders say the overarching goals of improving quality and safety have taken on greater urgency and significance as the company tackles multiple threats.
Despite controversies and the mega-crisis of its 737 Max airplane, the company is still fighting to reassert its prowess as an engineering powerhouse while also building a foundation for future aircraft program that is expected over the next decade.
“It’s about strengthening engineering,” Boeing’s 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 entire company.”
After years of wild market competition, the need to deliver on bulging order books has opened up a new front in Boeing’s war with Europe’s Airbus, this time on the factory floor.
According to a report, the AirBus CEO Guillaume Faury has pledged to “invent new production systems and leverage the power of data” to optimize its industrial system.
Boeing’s approach so far has been marked by incremental advances within specific jet programs or tooling, rather than the systemic overhaul that characterizes Hyslop’s push today.
And if you’re wondering how the metaverse which is just another fancy word for a shared digital space via virtual or augmented reality – and accessible via the internet works in aviation?
Like Airbus, Boeing’s holy grail for its next new aircraft is to build and link virtual three-dimensional “digital twin” replicas of the jet and the production system able to run simulations.
This includes a digital prototype as well as information about the aircraft’s development and superb engineering as well as different parts and pages of certification documents and even its supply chain.
Overhauling antiquated paper-based practices could bring powerful change.
Over 70% of quality issues at Boeing have been traced back to some kind of design issue according to Hyslop.
In the virtual world, Boeing believes such tools can be central to bringing new aircraft from inception to market within a little period of time.
“You will get speed, you will get improved quality, better communication, and better responsiveness when issues occur,” Hyslop said.
“When the quality from the supply base is better when the airplane build goes together more smoothly when you minimize re-work, the financial performance will follow from that.”
Yet the plan faces enormous challenges.
On the skeptics front, there was an emphasis on the technical problems on Boeing’s 777x mini-jumbo and T-7A RedHawk military training jets both of which were developed using digital tools.
Boeing has also placed too great an emphasis on shareholder returns at the expense of engineering dominance, and continues to cut R&D spending, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said.
“Is it worth pursuing? By all means,” Aboulafia said. “Will it solve all their problems? No.”
On the other hand, is the Spirit AeroSystems has invested in digital technology.
Many have been weakened by the MAX and coronavirus crises, which followed a decade of price pressure from Boeing or Airbus.
“They not only tell us what hardware we can buy, but they are also now going to specify all this fancy digital junk that goes on top of it?” one supply chain executive said.
Boeing itself has come to realize that digital technology alone is not a panacea. It must come with organizational and cultural changes across the company, industry sources say.
Boeing recently tapped veteran engineer Linda Hapgood to oversee the “digital transformation,” which one industry source said was underpinned by more than 100 engineers.
Hapgood is best known for turning black-and-white paper drawings of the 767 tanker’s wiring bundles into 3-D images and then outfitting mechanics with tablets and HoloLens augmented-reality headsets. Quality improved by 90%, one insider said.
In her new role, Hapgood hired engineers who worked on a digital twin for a now-scrapped midmarket airplane known as NMA.
She is also drawing 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 was brought to market in just 36 months.
Even so, the program is grappling with parts shortages, design delays, and additional testing requirements.
Boeing has a running start with its 777X wing factory in Washington state, where the layout and robot optimization was first done digitally. But the broader program is years behind schedule and mired in certification challenges.
“This is a long game,” Hyslop said. “Every one of these efforts was addressing part of the problem. But now what we want to do is do it from end to end.”