Aerospace & Defence

How digital reality and automation are bridging the aerospace manufacturing skills gap

22nd August 2023
Paige West

With the recent Paris Air Show capturing global attention through multiple record-breaking deals between airlines and major aircraft manufacturers like Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer, the aerospace industry's future is looking strong.

However, behind the celebratory headlines are the formidable challenges the industry is facing. The call to meet escalating demand while simultaneously striving for net-zero emissions by 2050 has created a pressing need for innovation. This is currently being held back by skills shortages across the sector, from aerospace engineers to technicians and mechanics. In today’s competitive landscape, cutting-edge technology holds the potential to bridge the skills gap and completely transform aerospace manufacturing as we know it.

Aziz Tahiri, VP Global Aerospace & Defence, Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division, further explores.

Tackling the aerospace industry's skills problem

As the aerospace industry moves towards this ambitious horizon, it faces a complex skills crisis – stemming from an aging workforce, waning interest among younger generations, and labour constraints. The number of aerospace workers is shrinking while the diversity and specificity of skills needed have increased, widening the gap as older, experienced workers leave the labour market. This is pushing manufacturers to achieve more with fewer employees, meaning they need to increase productivity and efficiency like never before. The pandemic and its associated redundancies and furloughs only exacerbated the problem, leaving the industry struggling to find skilled and qualified personnel to support the demand for new aircraft.

This issue has manifested as supply chain disruptions, financial shortfalls, and slowing the recovery of the industry post-pandemic. The gap in the workforce has also led to a loss of institutional knowledge and expertise, making it more challenging to train and develop the next generation of makers.

The implications are clear and concerning: without a steady influx of skilled professionals, aerospace companies risk losing their competitive edge. However, the industry is not idly waiting for solutions, but rather actively embracing innovative technologies like training simulators, virtual reality, and automation to reshape its future.

Fostering innovation and attracting talent

Cutting-edge technology and its applications have the potential to captivate the younger generation. The aerospace industry is truly fascinating, enabling people to sit comfortably at 30,000 feet, connecting diverse cultures, sharing knowledge, and even exploring the depths of space and the universe. Moreover, it stands at the forefront of technology, driving innovation and experimentation with the most advanced technologies. While it needs to maintain environmental responsibility, it should also inspire dreams. Therefore, it is imperative that we attract the younger generation to support and propel this industry without harming the planet.

Many younger workers perceive traditional manufacturing jobs as dirty, dangerous, or low-skilled when in reality, these roles have evolved drastically over time in tandem with technological developments and 'smarter’ factories. For instance, data collection and analysis has become a core focus of the industry, paving the way for quicker troubleshooting, reduced costs and waste, and more efficient machines. It is a vital part of the manufacturing sector’s digital transformation, especially in the high-precision and safety-critical aerospace industry.

By showcasing the role of advanced technologies, like robotic automation, data analytics, AR, VR, and 3D printing, manufacturers can attract younger workers who are interested in working with these tools, opening up avenues to engage with a new wave of potential recruits. It also contributes to transforming the public perception of aerospace manufacturing by demonstrating increased safety, cleaner work environments, and the availability of higher-skilled jobs.

But to support and sustain this, we need to establish effective training and development programs, mentorship opportunities, and clear career advancement paths to entice younger individuals looking to advance their careers.

Training tomorrow's makers in digital reality

To maintain its competitive edge, the aerospace sector needs to address these challenges by investing in skills development and innovating smart factory solutions that empower people to become more efficient and productive. Companies need to provide ongoing training to drive the next generation of the workforce while ensuring the more seasoned employees don't get left behind.

Digital reality, often associated with gaming, is now proving to be a transformative tool in addressing these needs. By training engineers in a virtual environment, manufacturers can quickly onboard new hires and enhance their skills, reducing downtime and the risk of damaging expensive equipment. For example, Hexagon’s HxGN Machine Trainer provides hands-on experience, allowing engineers to practice operating CNC machines and inspecting quality with precision. Industry leaders like Airbus and Safran are already beginning to implement these training programmes to ensure that the next generation of aerospace manufacturers are equipped with the specific skills needed to satisfy demand for today’s aircraft and build the next generation of more sustainable mobility solutions.

The same rationale applies to the digital twins used in new product development – these can be used to create immersive and interactive training experiences that reflect real life without the associated risks and visualised with 3D models and immersive experiences to enhance our understanding of the engineering requirements and manufacturing processes. They can also serve as a centralised platform for collaboration and knowledge-sharing among employees. In this way, new employees can access the digital twin to learn from the experiences and insights of more experienced colleagues. This can significantly improve the onboarding process and accelerate the upskilling of new employees, leading to improved productivity and overall performance.

The changing face of manufacturing

The aerospace industry is at a tipping point, and the adoption of advanced technology will play a key role in determining its trajectory. This new landscape champions the potential of transformative tools such as digital reality, training simulators, smart factories, and automation to break silos and harness skills, ensuring that the industry continues to innovate and grow.

This transformation doesn't halt at the training stage. It extends to the very heart of aerospace manufacturing: the factory floor. Automation technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, are becoming increasingly prevalent in manufacturing, especially in repetitive, detail-oriented tasks like scanning and inspecting parts for quality assurance. At Hexagon, we see the benefits multiply as customers apply these approaches across previously isolated manufacturing processes, from planning and programming robotic inspection cells, to simulating advanced CNC machining and optimising additive manufacturing processes. By automating these tasks, smart factories free up human workers to innovate by focussing on more critical or analytical functions – by asking ‘what if?’ more often and with better quality data.

To retain talent, employees must find their work enjoyable, purposeful and in alignment with their personal values. The latest digital and automation technologies must not only be functional, but also accessible and enjoyable to work with. Solutions will have to be designed with a user-centric approach, featuring user-friendly interfaces, interactive 3D experiences and connectivity with functions that foster collaboration and empower teams. These are the core pillars of novel open platforms like Nexus that are transforming the way the manufacturing workforce can work. Given the significance of environmental and societal responsibilities to the younger generation, companies must also have robust ecological and ethical values – both in theory and in how they can put them into practice.

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