How the labor shortage is killing Aerospace composites manufacturing and how to solve it

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The last few years have been turbulent times for advanced manufacturing and the aerospace composites industry in particular. 

First, the pandemic and the resulting drop in air travel led to a dramatic reduction in demand and as a result, steep decrease in manufacturing volumes. Then, when the industry was gearing up towards ‘back to normal’,  supply chain challenges grew dramatically. And now, just as the industry is getting past the pandemic and is taking-off again, it faces another major problem – the manufacturing labor shortage.

Manufacturers, hoping to fulfil the growing demand for new aircrafts are struggling to hire the talented staff they need and train them to reach and exceed pre-pandemic production volumes.. 

Many experienced workers  were forced to furlough  in order to get through the pandemic. Now with considerable labor shortages in manufacturing sectors across the board, there doesn’t seem to be an experienced industrial workforce available to build the plane parts of the future.

A 2021 study of US manufacturers found: 

  • The number of workers is down 570,000 compared to pre-pandemic levels.
  • 36% are finding it harder to hire the right talent for their company compared to 2018.
  • 77% of respondents said they are having difficulties hiring and retaining employees.

With a rising skills gap and an emphasis on attending university over learning a trade, the manufacturing labor shortage is not a new problem. However, it is one that the pandemic has supercharged. Post-covid workers are now looking for a “hi-tech” environment, greater flexibility in where and when they work and higher pays – something at odds with today’s manufacturing landscape that requires  physical in-person shift work and the need to meet tight deadlines.

Supply chain issues are also compounding the productivity issues stemming from labor shortages. If manufacturers manage to fill their personnel needs, they can’t always guarantee they will have the materials and resources to complete the production plans. Suppliers are facing the same labor shortages as manufacturers. Given the aerospace industry relies on long and complex supply chains, it only takes a short delay to create significant ripple effects, slowing down production.

The scale of the labor shortage challenge

The 2021 Manufacturing Talent Study from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute predicts over 2 million unfilled jobs in the US alone by 2030. This translates to a potential cost of $1 trillion to the country’s economic output. 

In the aerospace industry specifically, Boeing faces supplier employee shortfalls in the region of 10% to 20%. Suppliers they are relying on to match the increased production targets this fall. Surveys of suppliers by RBC Capital Markets found roughly two-thirds believe labor shortages are the single largest risk to the recovery of the aerospace industry.

Data from the US Bureau of Labor shows the effects of the pandemic combined to wipe out three years of employment gains in the Aerospace industry, Setting aerospace businesses back considerably with a shortfall of over 50 thousand employees from March 2017 to March 2020:

source

Even if it was possible to rehire that many people, there would still be significant productivity issues due to the time required to train new staff.

Labor shortage issues hindering Aerospace composites manufacturing are leading to increased delays, flights becoming more expensive, and a dramatic rise in the cost of renting planes. Reports from CNBC suggest the rent for some aircraft is 20% higher than pre-pandemic prices.

What can the industry do, given the seemingly insurmountable problem of finding new workers? An inevitable option is to learn how to do more with less using software and technology. 

Industrial IoT (IIoT) and AI solutions for manufacturing, such as Plataine’s platform, allow businesses to transform how they utilize their workforce and materials. Getting the most out of every resource to optimize operations for even the most advanced aerospace composite manufacturing process.

How AI and IIoT help solving the challenge? 

Intelligent decision making and automation combined:  

While reskilling and hiring new staff are critical components for the recovery of the Aerospace industry, they can’t close the productivity gap on their own. Manufacturing optimization tech for the Aviation industry, that’s built on AI and IIoT changes the game: 

  • Tracking issues in real-time (releasing the workforce from manual supervision) 
  • Identifying trends and deviations (forecasting delays or maintenance issues, alerting in advance and providing concrete recommendations, allowing new untrained employees avoid mistakes that result in rework and scrap)
  • Finding inefficiencies and automating repetitive manual tasks, such as material receiving, cutting and kitting, scheduling, tool management and alike. Hyper automation allows the existing labor to supercharge its production and all along avoid quality issues. 
  • Reducing waste
  • Calculating multiple layers of data in real-time (IIoT) and proactively offering actionable insights and recommendations, hence acting as force multiplier to the experienced workforce and allowing contextual optimization that wouldn’t be possible if managed manually. 

Increasing production with existing and new employees:

    • Empowering staff – AI software acts as a managing force multiplier. This includes not only data collection and analysis but also offering new workers with clear recommendations that increase their efficiency, even compared to experienced staff. Deciphering a sea of information to find underlying patterns and related context, and use them to push real-time recommendations that both supercharge the workforce and increase production based on existing materials: 
      • How to quickly receive new material and organize it in freezers and storage areas. 
      • How to run cutting in a way that saves material and organize kits automatically.
      • How to manage production schedule and time sensitive material journey (in and out from the freezers and onto the autoclaves).
      • How to quickly track lost tools, and run tool maintenance before it stops the production and causes downtime and delays.
      • How to respond to unpredictable production changes in real time, while running optimal and fast decision making.
    • Replacing repetitive tasks – AI that combines forces with IIoT sensors  is ideally suited to performing repetitive tasks that require little creativity or human thought, helping existing employees manage a lot more and with less human errors (that are given when manual work is done)  
  • Attracting younger, tech-savvy new employees and training them efficiently – High-tech environments appeal to technically minded candidates with the skill sets needed to upgrade the Aerospace composite manufacturing process. Plus, with AI software and digital assistants to help onboard staff, you can compensate for lack of experience with improved training programs and information access.

Concrete examples of specific tasks that can be improved using AI solutions for aerospace manufacturing:

Composites material management

Software can now track every stage of material management from shipping, delivery, tagging, freezing, and storage to defrosting, cutting and kitting, lamination, and curing. Combining this data with careful analysis of every work order, facilities can optimize how and when resources are used to reduce composite material waste, decrease costs, and increase productivity.

This includes automating the selection of material based on various parameters (e.g., properties, shelf-life, availability, etc.). Smart AI solutions can tell staff which rolls to defrost based on deeper insights, not what seems most convenient at a given time. It eliminates quality issues, prevents the use of expired material, and minimizes rework and material waste.

Receiving material: rolls enter the site and are immediately hooked with sensors, and then are placed in the freezer. From now on they are tracked (location, temperature, etc.) throughout the entire journey. The software instructs for specific rolls of material to defrost, other rolls to use first in production (based on size that fits the plan and expiration data) – the existing workforce invests a lot less on manual material management and is free to perform more production tasks.  

AI based Cutting and Kitting

As mentioned, determining the best roll of composite material to use for a specific job is not always a simple task. Smart algorithms analyze the upcoming work orders and optimize the cutting and kitting procedures to minimize waste and save employees time on kitting the parts. This means combining job requirements while reducing composite material waste and delivering clear instructions to staff, including using short rolls that fit the plan, first. 

The image below demonstrates the difference between a simple and a smart cutting plan, and the result in close to 20% material waste minimization: 

Given the high cost of composite materials, optimizing their use and reducing waste can significantly affect the bottom line (on top of easing on the employees). More important, produce more parts and avoid delays due to supply chain disruptions.

Tool management

The complicated and diverse manufacturing requirements of aerospace facilities require the tracking of tools such as molds, so that workers can efficiently perform their roles. With IIoT sensors, manufacturers can automatically manage their tools, preventing the misplacement of resources and the mismanagement of employees’ time.

AI solutions can go beyond responding to queries for specific tools. This includes alerting when a tool deviates from the norm placement, triggering an automatic notification rather than just a reactive answer when queried. 

Tools duty cycles are tracked as well, so the software alerts when it’s nearly time for maintenance and therefore the tool should be serviced, avoiding delays leading to late work orders. 

Production management support

Floor managers are constantly occupied with making decisions and reacting to new information. Unforeseen circumstances always arise during the manufacturing process and whether a deadline is met is often down to the success of a manager’s decision-making. Labor shortage means more pressure on the floor managers and less available brains that can solve issues by making optimal decisions. 

However, what if managers could utilize real-time data and smart algorithms to perform complex calculations in real-time and receive suggestions that improve the facility’s operational capacity? AI software that is made for aerospace manufacturing tracks and analyzes data to  speed up and improve the quality of decision-making process. 

This includes inventory status (how much material exists in the floor, is it time to order more, how much is defrost and does it match the production planning), together with  tool and material management, cut and kit optimization, new risks that require flagging (such as a risk to meeting production deadlines and actions to take to avoid that), a reduction in output from a specific workstation or tool, and much more. An all in one AI production optimization suite utilizes smart technology to make smart decisions at scale, increasing a facility’s output and ensuring deadlines are always kept.

Summary

Aerospace Aviation composites manufacturing is (still) going through a tough time. A pandemic followed by a severe labor shortage has left the industry struggling to keep pace with demand. But they say, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” So on top of scrambling to hire and retrain staff just to stay afloat in the short term, organizations should turn the current labor shortage in manufacturing into an opportunity, bringing their operations into 2022 with new AI solutions in the hands of existing and new hired staff,  capable of meeting the moment.

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