Aircraft manufacturing and maintenance

Make supply chains more visible to cope with unexpected change

Image credit: Shutterbas/Dreamstime

Aerospace and defence manufacturers can’t prevent the disruption caused by Covid-19, but shifting away from traditional sequential planning methodologies can help mitigate the risks.

Aerospace and defence (A&D) is a broad sector encompassing a raft of organisations, each of them facing different but momentous challenges in navigating the current pandemic. Civil aerospace has been especially badly hit, with many airlines now running at only around 20 per cent capacity. The arrival of vaccines has the potential to help restore air travel to pre-Covid levels, but airlines aren’t expecting to see a significant boost in passenger numbers in the near future.

This drop-off has had a knock-on effect on aerospace manufacturers who have seen demand for aircraft drying up. In the UK, aircraft manufacturers received just 13 orders in July and August 2020 and none in September. This figure compares with 152 during the same period in 2019. At the end of October 2020, it was being reported that 12,000 UK jobs in aerospace had either been lost or were at risk because of the pandemic. Defence has been doing better thanks to funding from government ministries, but even here reductions in budgets may have an impact on manufacturers over the longer term.

Across both industries there is an important people dimension, with many employees unable to carry out factory work because they are self-isolating due to sickness or are concerned about health risks. The fact that vaccines are now being rolled out is, of course, welcome news for the sector, but a new approach will still be required by all the stakeholders involved if the A&D industry is to start returning to its previous strength any time soon.

Moving forward, it is inevitably going to be a challenge for all A&D firms to get a handle on demand. Forecasting how demand fluctuations will impact airlines and aircraft manufacturers will be very difficult; the industry is facing an unprecedented environment so historical forecasting will be of little value and traditional sequential forecasting is just too slow.

As a result, many manufacturers, whether they supply into the civil sector or defence, will cut optional capital spending to support operational continuity and they may also reduce expenditure on non-essential projects until demand picks up. This strategy may well work for larger manufacturers, but tier one and tier two suppliers will struggle as they lack the financial power to bounce back.

These supplier businesses will likely end up being the bottleneck from the financial and operational standpoint so they will take a greater hit which will disrupt the whole supply chain. This turbulence will affect civil aerospace in particular, while defence will remain cushioned from the worst impacts because it will be able to turn to government support to protect the supply chain.

Over the longer-term, companies are looking to develop a more flexible supply chain that allows them to move to an alternative supplier if one link in the existing chain fails. We are seeing a huge shift to manufacturers wanting to put in place an alternative supply chain and those manufacturers that fail to do so will surely feel the longer-term impact severely.

In the civil sector the ‘old normal’ seems elusive. With few able to predict for certain whether we will ever get back to anything like the demand levels of the past, it is high time for a new approach to help the industry get back on its feet.

Whether civil or defence, manufacturers need to ask: how do we get a stronger real-time awareness of the supply chain? They must understand, for example, which locations have hardly been affected by Covid-19, as well as the places where there has been a heavy impact.

Manufacturers also need to be aware of how they can gain access to alternative suppliers. They must keep lines of communication with customers and suppliers open. That’s especially key with the defence industry because if they fail to do so they could end up incurring huge penalties.

There is now a need to move away from the sequential planning and manual-focused approach that many have relied on historically to move to a more agile planning methodology. Doing this will help manufacturers mitigate risk going forward.

In terms of defence, the end customer is the government so contracts are likely to be programme-based and therefore will have specific systems, data, and operational processes in place. For example, part numbers that can be specifically introduced for the duration of a programme helping to track parts. Any changes in circumstances, to do with a part for instance, will need to be communicated across the supply chain. Lack of transparency across the extended supply network can result in a failure to fulfil an order by any contractor, which will have a knock-on effect on the entire chain, leading to conflicting priorities where different contractors bid for different projects.

If manufacturers don’t address this issue, they will overrun budgets and be forced to ask for more money and as a result they are likely to be penalised by the government.

On the other hand, civil manufacturers have commercial agreements with private companies. These businesses will need to look into alternative suppliers, real-time visibility and achieve real-time situational awareness across the chain. Ultimately, A&D manufacturers don’t have the power to stop the disruption, but what they can and must do is find and prioritise ways of mitigating the risk.

The best way to do this is by adopting a concurrent planning technique. Concurrent planning is the process of making and managing unified plans across multiple time horizons, business processes and organisational boundaries at the same time. It synchronises data, processes and people to collapse decision-making time, break down organisational boundaries and dynamically balance the end-to-end network. If one person makes a change, everyone else instantly understands the impact on themselves, their team and the organisation.

Whether civil or defence, this can help manufacturers to reveal supply chain failures by modelling their entire supply chain and creating a digital twin of it. They can then reduce supply chain risk by providing full visibility through this concurrent technique throughout the entire extended supply chain network.

Any potential disruption can be modelled to provide the ability to assess the alternative risk-mitigation scenarios and all this can be done in real-time. New kinds of approaches such as this will certainly be necessary to ensure a bright future lies ahead for the sector.

Kourosh Samini is senior industry principal with Kinaxis.

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