Pushing the digital thread at Bell Helicopter

Bell Helicopter has been known as an innovator since its development of the V-22 Osprey. Today it is integrating the digital thread into its engineering and manufacturing operations to improve manufacturing efficiency.

[Third in a series]

A new slant on interoperability and collaboration is gaining ground in aerospace and defense (A&D) manufacturing, known as the digital thread. (For details, see the first two articles in this series, “Manufacturing with a digital thread, and “General Dynamics pursues the digital thread.”)

The digital thread philosophy started as a way to describe model-driven assembly on the factory floor, but is being expanded to describe a new way to use and exchange data from all aspects of manufacturing. The goal is to include 3D CAD, PLM, enterprise resource management (ERP), supply chain management (SCM), manufacturing execution systems (MES) and other data types in a common data exchange format structure with common interfaces from design to assembly. The goal is plug-and-play connectivity where data producers and data consumers will link to a common data source at any point in the manufacturing process.

Paul Oldroyd, Technical Fellow, Bell Helicopter Textron

Paul Oldroyd is a Technical Fellow at Bell Helicopter Textron, a leading defense and aerospace contractor. He oversees Manufacturing Research and Technology Development. As a young engineer he was assigned to the team that designed the V-22 Osprey, the unique blend of helicopter and airplane that has become an essential element of modern warfare. Now a Technical Fellow at Bell with a specialization in the evolution of manufacturing and process engineering, Oldroyd is advocating for a digital thread approach to manufacturing within Bell. The V-22 Osprey remains one of his responsibilities.

The following comments by Oldroyd were excerpted from a longer interview provided to GraphicSpeak by the AeroDef Conference; Oldroyd was a speaker and member of the conference advisory board.

On being a part of the V-22 Osprey team:

Milestone aircraft don’t come along very often. With the exception of a couple of the primes, companies do not get a chance to develop new programs every year. About 20 years ago, Bell got the contract to build that aircraft. I was involved as a young engineer. We developed a number of new, breakthrough technologies for this military aircraft, technologies that are now pervasive throughout the industry.

People still see the V-22 as transformational, but that aircraft flew its first flight more than two decades ago. It was one of the first composite or nearly all composite aircraft.

It has taken two decades to infuse some of that technology into the rest of our product line, and for a lot of the commercial world to see and incorporate those technologies. And now that those technologies, groundbreaking at the time, are more mainstream, the focus is to incorporate those technologies more efficiently into the existing aircraft.

The V-22 Osprey has been a military workhorse since its introduction almost 20 years ago. (Image courtesy Bell Helicopter Textron).

The challenge of introducing the digital thread concept:

One of our challenges today is to help people understand what the digital thread is and what it can do. First the definition of it—what is it—and second, its realization. Increasingly our systems are so complex that you can’t separate the engineering and the manufacturing in the supply chain. They have to be one. So the definition in my mind of digital thread is exactly that, the uniting of engineering and manufacturing as digital data.

The next question is, How do you realize it? That’s the tougher question. How do you make the digital thread work? It requires the manufacturing technologists to be on board at the same time that engineering designers are considering product configuration. Understanding the digital thread as a different development model is a difficult concept for some to understand. Typically the manufacturing guys are concerned about legacy products and near term, and the engineering community is more concerned about the long term. It is a big paradigm shift to include both together at the concept stage in a project.

The future of collaboration in a digital thread environment:

In military manufacturing, we focus on milestones A, B and C. And those achievements now have to be compressed. So we have to create something very much like a digital thread in the way we pull together a team to build the next generation aircraft. It is really a digital thread in the way aircraft is manufactured today, and it’s also a collaboration or digital thread between all the participants in a financial sense.

Financial participation is an interesting parallel to the concept of a digital thread. In reality, the whole idea of a digital thread is really that—a digital connection between the idea, the prototyping, the development phase, and the early manufacturing.

I could point to a number of recent examples where the government contract was insufficient to accomplish the task, and the only way it actually happened was that the OEM stepped up to it. In the future, I think the government is going to ask for financial participation; the OEM’s are going to ask the Tier One’s and Tier Two’s to risk partner with them and shoulder some of the responsibility for the tooling, or for the capital, in order to realize a benefit from a new technology. And then all three of them are going to have to work together in a multi-company consortia to get an aircraft built in record time.