Collaborative Robots and Digital Technology Signal Creation of the ‘Factory of the Future’

Our engineers will soon benefit from collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – designed to support people with complex manufacturing of combat aircraft by the end of this year.

Defence Industry

The cobotic workstation, a key feature of the factory of the future, is fitted with a range of digital technology and will be piloted at the company’s Warton, Lancashire site to work safely and seamlessly alongside manufacturers building high-tech systems for cutting-edge combat aircraft.

The technologies that have been developed – including operator recognition and a sensor-enabled cobotic arm – will be tested on the Typhoon production line by the end of this year, marking the latest step in BAE Systems’ strategy to continually invest in and enhance its manufacturing capabilities to deliver the aircraft of the future.

The introduction of new digitally integrated advanced manufacturing technologies builds on existing investments in robotics and aims to drive further productivity, quality and safety improvements into future combat aircraft programmes, helping to increase the Company’s competitiveness and manufacturing agility. Robotics is already an integral part of BAE Systems’ combat aircraft production line which includes a high level of automation, but the integrated sensors that feature in the workstation make this the next step in people safely working directly with robots.

The technology will allow the worker to make strategic decisions while delegating to the cobotic arm repetitive, machine-driven tasks which require consistency. This will enable engineers to focus on highly-skilled tasks, adding greater value to the manufacturing process.

It will recognise operators and automatically load optimised individual profiles using wireless technology. It will also automatically deliver tailored cues and instructions, suitable for their level of expertise to guide them through practical tasks. This will allow employees to work at a greater pace, with increased accuracy.

Key features

  • Operator recognition– the high tech workstation will use wireless sensors to identify each worker and tailor the working experience accordingly
  • Digital training passport– will remember each worker’s level of expertise, training history and user permissions
  • Cobotic arm– will be fitted with sensors to enable it to safely interact with employees during complex assembly tasks
  • Light-assisted assembly– will prompt the user towards the correct components or consumables during the manufacturing process with light-assisted or pick by light technology

Dave Holmes, Manufacturing Director at BAE Systems’ Air business, said: “We’ve only really started to scratch the surface of what automation can do in industry and some really exciting possibilities are emerging as we enter the fourth industrial revolution.

“Cobotics is the next, natural step in developing manufacturing technology that will allow for a blending of skilled roles. We envisage that people will make larger, more strategic decisions while delegating the repetitive and intricate aspects of production to a robot.”

“Through the factory of the future technology, automation will empower employees to work safely at greater speed and with maintained accuracy, leading to increased productivity and quality.”

BAE Systems has collaborated with a number of partners including the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, and Siemens who will provide MindSphere software. This software will connect technologies through the workstation and output manufacturing data that will help engineers analyse and improve the advanced manufacturing processes.

The cobotic workstation is part of BAE Systems’ plans to further incorporate and integrate manufacturing technologies into the workplace – such as reconfigurable, multifunction technology, 3D printing, augmented reality and manufacturing autonomy.

BAE Systems is involved in the manufacturing and development of some of the world’s most advanced combat aircraft, including the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II. The Company opened its New Product and Process Development Centre in Samlesbury last year, where 3D printing and virtual reality technology are used to reduce costs and speed up manufacturing processes for combat aircraft. BAE Systems has also invested in robotics as part of the early careers training programme at its state-of-the-art Academy for Skills & Knowledge at its Samlesbury site in Lancashire.