Boeing wants to build its next plane in the ‘metaverse’


SEATTLE/PARIS, Dec. 17 (Reuters) – Boeing Co’s (BA.N) factory of the future will combine immersive 3D engineering designs with robots that speak to each other, while connecting mechanics around the world with $3,500 HoloLens- headsets made by Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O).

It is a snapshot of an ambitious new Boeing strategy to unify its vast design, manufacturing and aerospace services operations into one digital ecosystem in just two years.

Critics say Boeing has repeatedly made similar bold promises about a digital revolution, with mixed results. But insiders say the overarching goals of improving quality and safety have become more urgent and important as the company tackles multiple threats.

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Entering 2022, the aircraft maker is fighting to restore its engineering dominance after the 737 MAX crisis, while laying the groundwork for a future aircraft program over the next decade — a $15 billion gamble. It is also intended to prevent future production problems, such as the structural flaws that have plagued the 787 Dreamliner for the past year. read more

“It’s about strengthening the technology,” Boeing chief engineer Greg Hyslop told Reuters in his first interview in nearly two years. “We’re talking about changing the way we work across the company.”

After years of fierce market competition, the need to fulfill the bulging order books has opened a new front in Boeing’s war with European Airbus (AIR.PA), this time on the factory floor.

Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury, a former chief of automotive research, has pledged to “invent new manufacturing systems and harness the power of data” to optimize its industrial system.

Boeing’s approach thus far has been characterized by incremental advances within specific jet programs or tooling, rather than the systemic overhaul that characterizes Hyslop’s current push.

The simultaneous push by both airline giants is indicative of a digital revolution happening worldwide as automakers like Ford Motor Co (FN) and social media companies like Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc (FB.O) sometimes shift work and play into an immersive virtual reality. world called the metaverse.

So how does the metaverse — a shared digital space that often uses virtual reality or augmented reality and is accessible over the Internet — work 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 that can run simulations.

The digital mockups are supported by a “digital thread” that stitches together every bit of information about the aircraft from infancy — from airline requirements to millions of parts to thousands of pages of certification documents — deep down the supply chain.

Overhauling outdated paper-based practices can bring about powerful change.

More than 70% of Boeing’s quality problems can be traced back to some design problem, Hyslop said. Boeing believes such tools will be critical to bringing a new aircraft to market in just four or five years from inception.

“You get speed, you get better quality, better communication and better responsiveness when problems arise,” Hyslop said.

“If the quality of the supply base is better, if the aircraft build is smoother, if you minimize rework, the financial performance will follow.”

HUGE CHALLENGE

Still, the plan faces enormous challenges.

Skeptics point to technical issues with Boeing’s 777X mini-jumbo and T-7A RedHawk military training aircraft, which were developed using digital tools.

Boeing has also placed too much emphasis on shareholder returns at the expense of engineering dominance, and continues to cut R&D spending, said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia.

‘Is it worth pursuing? Sure,’ said Aboulafia. “Will it solve all their problems? No.”

Juggernauts like aircraft parts maker Spirit AeroSystems (SPR.N) have already invested in digital technology. Major aircraft manufacturers are collaborating with French software maker Dassault Systèmes (DAST.PA). But hundreds of smaller suppliers around the world lack the capital or the people to make big strides.

Many have been weakened by the MAX and coronavirus crises, which have followed a decade of price pressure from Boeing or Airbus.

“They’re not just telling us what hardware to buy, they’re going to spec all that fancy digital junk that comes on top of it now?” a supply chain executive said.

‘A LONG GAME’

Boeing itself has come to realize that digital technology alone is not a panacea. It needs to be accompanied by organizational and cultural changes across the company, industry sources say.

Boeing recently called on veteran engineer Linda Hapgood to oversee the “digital transformation,” which an industry source said was supported by more than 100 engineers.

Hapgood is best known for turning black-and-white paper drawings of the 767 tanker’s wiring harnesses into 3D images and then equipping mechanics with tablets and HoloLens augmented-reality headsets. Quality improved by 90%, an insider said.

In her new role, Hapgood hired engineers to work on digital twins for a now-demolished midmarket aircraft known as NMA.

She also uses the lessons learned from the MQ-25 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 launched in just 36 months.

Still, the program struggles with parts shortages, design delays and additional testing requirements.

Boeing is off to a flying start with its 777X Wing plant in Washington State, where layout and robot optimization were first done digitally. But the broader program is years behind schedule and mired in certification challenges.

“This is a long game,” Hyslop said. “All of these efforts were aimed at addressing part of the problem. But what we want to do now is do it from start to finish.”

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Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Tim Hepher in Paris Editing by Matthew Lewis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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