Boeing CEO Talks ‘Digital Twin’ Era of Aviation

Computer rendering of Boeing 777-9X and 777-8X. Photo courtesy of Boeing

Boeing has been able to achieve up to a 40% improvement in first-time quality of the parts and systems it uses to manufacture commercial and military airplanes by using the digital twin asset development model. This model is going to be the biggest driver of production efficiency improvements for the world’s largest airplane maker over the next decade, said Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

The use of the digital twin is changing how Boeing designs its airplanes, by providing a virtual replication of physical airplane parts and simulating how they will perform over the lifecycle of the airframe, Muilenburg told investors at the Morgan Stanley Laguna Conference in Dana Point, California, Sept. 12.

A digital twin is created by using ultra high-fidelity simulation software that can create a virtual working model of highly complex systems and components, such as those featured on Boeing’s airplanes. Digital twin replication software is capable of creating a virtual three dimensional model that can go through a simulated lifecycle of the environments and conditions that asset will experience. The lifecycle is created by digitally threading together bits of data about that component’s in-service product lifecycle.

“We’re moving to model-based engineering digitizing our entire engineering and development system up front including down into our supply chain and connecting that with the production system and how we service and support to create value for our customers,” said Muilenburg. “That digital life cycle — think of it as a digital twin of our airplanes — will unleash incredible value in the future.”

Boeing is one of several companies within the aviation industry that has adopted digital twin manufacturing. GE for example has been a leader in adopting the digital twin model, and described the concept as a “organized collection of physics-based methods and advanced analytics that is used to model the present state of any asset,” in a white paper discussing the use of digital twin for replicating a power plant. Airbus executives have also been discussing their use of digital technology to design airplanes since the beginning of 2017

The company embraced this digital twin concept last year in an internal letter called Innovation Quarterly. In the letter, Boeing described how it used model-based engineering or the digital twin to design the air data reference function for the 777X. The ADRF processes signals and data such as airspeed and altitude and helps the airplane convert physical information about the flight environment into digital data populated in numbers and information to pilots on cockpit displays. The model helped Boeing reduce the cost and time to develop the ADRF on the 777X.

“We’re seeing things like 40 to 50% improvements in first time quality,” said Muilenburg. “We’re very much in the early stages. My expectation for us being able to grow the bottom line year over year cash growth regardless of some of the externals is because of the incredible ability we have now to drive first-time quality into our production systems because of the new technologies.”

Avionics is a ‘Targeted Vertical’ for Boeing

Muilenburg also discussed Boeing’s expanded focus on increasingly developing some of the critical systems and components of its airplanes in the future. The company unveiled the name and leadership of its new manufacturing division, AvionX, in August. The division will focus on production of navigation, flight controls and information systems.

“We’ve also announced several vertical areas that are key to our future in terms of designing our airplanes,” said Muilenburg. “Targeted areas include avionics, and this is not all avionics, it’s selected areas. Think of it as the brains of our airplanes, for future digital solutions.”

Boeing is looking to reduce development costs and create new “supply chain alternatives,” the chief executive said. The first aircraft that could feature more internally developed avionics technologies could be the NMA, which still has not been launched as an official program. All of the Boeing’s current in-production models, including the newest and top selling models — 737 MAX, 777X and 787 —feature avionics primarily developed by major external OEMs and systems integrators such as Rockwell Collins, Teledyne and GE Aviation, among others.

Muilenburg also named other targeted areas for more vertical integration including interiors. Its joint venture with Adient will develop seats, and one with Safran will develop auxiliary power units (APUs).

Flying Taxis and Hypersonics

The Morgan Stanley conference also provided Muilenburg with a chance to discuss future investments Boeing is making in non-traditional aeronautical technological concepts. Boeing has announced several major investments in developing future-facing flight and manufacturing technologies through its Horizon X innovation arm. These include additive manufacturing, autonomous systems, electric powered aircraft and an electric-powered cargo drone capable of transporting up to 500 pounds.

Muilenberg also sees major potential in a hypersonic passenger travel and low-Earth orbit space travel, both of which could happen sooner than expected.

“We’re also working on things like high-speed flight, supersonic, hypersonic aircraft, connect any two parts in the world, two cities in a couple of hours,” said Muilenberg. “Eventually we’re going to see low-Earth orbit space travel as commonplace, and we’ll be launching first flight of our new star liner next year ,which will be our entry into low-Earth orbit space travel.”

Boeing also has an interest in the concept of electric-vertical-takeoff-and-landing (EVTOL) air taxis. In 2017, the company completed its acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences, whose expertise in autonomous aircraft technology can help enable the development of such an aircraft from Boeing.

Muilenberg has said several times in speeches and presentations throughout 2018 that Boeing is working on air taxi prototype airframes. The OEM is also working on the enabling infrastructure for autonomous air taxis.

“As you think about future urban congestion and ways to relieve that congestion, three-dimensional highways in cities are not all that farfetched,” said Muilenberg.

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