Virtual world and additive techniques combine to disruptive effect at BAE Systems

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

Earlier this year The Engineer visited BAE Systems’ New Product and Process Development Centre in Samlesbury, Lancs for a tour of facilities that included a look inside the VR suite and a glimpse at the future potential of additive manufacturing (AM).

The NPPDC sits within BAE’s Military Air and Information business unit and provides full through-life support for aircraft programmes currently in manufacture, plus those passing the sunset or sustainment phases of those programmes.

According to John Dunstan, head of the NPPDC at BAE Systems, the rate demands of F-35 and the lower volume nature of other programmes don’t naturally sit together as comfortable bedfellows in terms of the manufacturing systems that underpin the company.

“Combine that with all the business pressures in terms of cost down, compression of lead time et cetera that come to bear on all those programmes…[and] some challenges are there in terms of sustaining [our] place in the marketplace as we go forward,” he said.

“The fact that we’re going into smaller batches gives us less leverage in the supply chain,” added Dunstan. “The SMEs are very much interested in the high volume demands coming down from the civil market place.”

The company is looking also at how to position itself for inclusion into what are likely to be collaborative programs out in the 2030 timeframe, which requires an assessment of technologies and capabilities it’ll need to position itself as  a partner on those programmes.

According to Dunstan, the increased use of automation in the assembly environment, augmented/virtual (AR/VR) reality, and additive manufacturing are all starting to have a place in helping BAE meet challenges. The new product and process development centre will help to ensure that disruptive technologies are introduced in a non-disruptive manner.

By way of an example of AM at BAE, the Eurofighter Typhoon’s Environmental Control System (ECS) is made up of nine parts that are manufactured separately and then assembled before being integrated onto the finished fighting machine. AM allows the ECS to be printed as one part, cutting the lead time by 75 per cent and introducing cost savings of nearly 60 per cent.

The company’s virtual reality suite allows engineers to take a further step backwards to see how the part works in the identical yet virtual world of a Virtalis VR suite. As with the company’s Surface Ships business, engineers can take a systems approach to looking at a platform and optimise its design before any materials are ordered, which is vital when working on large and expensive pieces of military hardware.

BAE is also looking at how VR can be used to visualise the interior of a production facility prior to setting up the shop floor, such is the flexibility and utility of VR in this instance.

Dunstan concluded that NPPDC gives BAE the time to develop a process and wrap a full process capability around it – from design, through to discharging the product – and be in a position to offer it to a programme, running it as a shared service in support of the programmes, or deploy to it in support some of our industrial obligations.

“The whole essence of the NPPDC is to do that with any number of disruptive processes,” he said.

VR takes centre stage in London this week when VR World comes to Olympia for its second edition. The two day conference and exhibition will look at what’s new in VR, mixed and augmented reality and speakers include Brian Waterfield, Virtual Reality & High-end Visualisation Technical Lead, at Jaguar Land Rover.

Jon Wadelton, Chief Technology Officer, Foundry will also be on hand to discuss project Bunsen, a research project that shows how modern VFX techniques can be used when visualising architecture, engineering and construction.

“Built on proven technology that has been used to create the most complex movies of the last decade, Bunsen lets engineers build real world projects in a purely virtual environment,” Wadelton told The Engineer. “Through the use of VR technology and headsets, engineers can ‘enter’ their designs and collaborate in real-time with teams globally. Engineering leads can all enter the digital environment, change aspects and visuals, and physically move around the space simultaneously.”

Foundry will be giving a live demonstration on Bunsen, and discussing how it is streamlining the engineering process during VR World on 16th – 17th May 2017.