Is it more expensive to assemble a piece of furniture yourself, or buy it ready-made from the shop? The answer to this question is simple if we just look at the price tag, but it’s not so easy if we ask ourselves how much our time is worth.
We’ve all ended up in a DIY store, tying ourselves in knots with spatial vision exercises (better known as “trial and error”) as we try and get our flat-pack boxes into the boot of the car. Later at home, there’s the challenge of assembly. You get about half-way through when you discover that, actually, there were two different lengths of the same screw and one extra part...and perhaps that front bit now looks like you’ve put it on backwards, despite having already changed it twice.
Now imagine that what you're trying to build is an A400M military transport aircraft.
Manufacturing engineering is all about minimising assembly costs and reducing the amount of time and additional implements needed. The difference between optimum assembly and a process that has not been optimised can drive the cost of a product up by 20%. This means that for aircraft manufacturers, it is absolutely worth their while to use specialist engineering firms.
Manufacturing engineering – or to use the furniture example again, designing the assembly manual that comes with the plane – is an art which just doesn’t get taught at school. There is an element of industrial organisation and process design, but every aeronautical product is different, with an assembly process which presents new challenges.
Training an engineer takes months, and although theory courses do help during this time, it is colleagues’ experience and the transfer of knowledge to and from others which is crucial.
For a programme such as the A400M, around 400 people from different companies work in a team with the same common goals: for assembly to be faster, simpler, and right the first time around! Key words include automation, simplicity, traceability, logistics, speed, and quality. No two jobs are ever the same, and in this type of work you never stop learning. Any engineer who is proud of the way they’ve designed an assembly process will be able to come back and review it in three months’ time and still find ways to improve it.
It gets really interesting when you bring advanced technologies into the mix. Transitioning from paper instructions to virtual 3D models which can even predict the fitter’s ergonomics, viewing finished products using augmented reality tools, or using Big Data technology to create knowledge databases to eliminate common errors will only be possible for companies that can incorporate engineering and technology cleanly and efficiently into the same team.