Innovation and developments are the driving force behind the aerospace and defense (A&D) industry’s growth, yet some administrative processes, operational workflows, and department silos are so entrenched in the typical A&D enterprise that true modernization is a challenge.

Digital technologies are driving a wide-scale approach as digital strategies, smart factories, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications become mainstream. Customers, colleagues, employees, partners, and stake-holders all expect modern systems for engagement. Portals, consumer-like interfaces, collaboration tools, and real-time answers are the new normal, and organizations stuck in old-school processes quickly lose credibility. In A&D, credibility and trust are paramount to avoid being branded as an out-of-date company that is technology adverse.

As more companies adopt digital solutions, the best practices are becoming clear. Most large endeavors require an overarching strategy instead of haphazardly working on random details. Early on, objectively evaluate the existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution; without the right ERP solution, other digital tactics will be more difficult to execute and may cause disappointing results. Midway into execution, it may be necessary to retrace steps, starting over with a more modern, agile system, so it is more efficient to make those decisions first.

Guidelines on what an ERP solution will need to do to support a digital transformation include:

1) Cloud deployment. Many companies investing in digital strategies are making cloud deployment a critical part of the plan. Reasons for transitioning to the cloud range from faster implementation time, to the convenience of subscription models that frees capital for other investments. A critical benefit for A&D companies is cloud deployment’s agility and update ability.

To keep pace in the digital era, an organization needs to be agile. Escalating market pressures can change overnight, trends come and go, and customer expectations evolve continuously. To respond, companies may need to evolve from manufacturing to service-centric business models. A supplier may transition to installation or inspections. A company may need to focus on one contract or service. It may implement new divisions or separate branches to meet compliance mandates or achieve security clearance. It might form regional divisions, leverage mergers, forge partnerships, add distribution hubs, create new service branches, or build facilities to focus on specific components. These tactics require setting up new systems, including hardware and software.

With the traditional approach, a firm’s information technology (IT) department would be burdened with procuring and managing the hardware, servers, security, and back-up systems for these new locations. Software for traditional on-premises systems can be time-consuming to implement. In contrast, cloud deployment leaves the system setup to the cloud provider, eliminating the IT team’s burden. Implementation takes days, not years.

2) Internet of Things. Digital technologies can involve smart sensors and connecting machines, devices, and processes. Sensors can monitor a variety of conditions, from location to temperature and weight, and can be as small as a pencil eraser, storing and communicating data elsewhere for aggregation and analysis. Data science can also play a part in identifying anomalies that require action, such as early signs that a component is vibrating, indicating a balance issue. Installing sensors is just the beginning. Then comes the need to store, analyze, and act upon the data generated. Cloud deployment with elastic storage capabilities, Big Data, data science, and advanced contextual analytics need to be part of a foundational plan.

3) Visibility and flexibility. Digital transformation is about data visibility and access, connecting to other systems, solutions, and even other devices, such as shipping containers and material handling equipment. To be digital-ready, an organization must have a flexible ERP system. One that eliminates cumbersome modifications making upgrades and integration difficult. In the past, ERP providers were concerned about keeping data within the organization, not in sharing. Today, visibility must extend beyond the enterprise to the supply chain network, colleagues, co-manufacturers, field service technicians, and partners. Modern solutions with highly flexible architecture allow integrating various branches and divisions, plus third-party suppliers, partners, or co-manufacturers.

4) Modern reporting and compliance. Reporting is a critical part of programs with mandated compliance steps. In next-generation ERP solutions, reporting is often self-service, letting users conduct their own searches, reports, and tracking of key performance indicators (KPIs). Relevant metrics can be continually pushed to users, making program reporting and management easier.

5) Consistent customer-centricity. ERP solutions should be able to address the entire customer journey, not just order-entry or field service dispatch. Customers want an engaging, collaborative experience, one that helps multiple vested parties work together to solve problems. A modern ERP solution can leverage collaboration tools, portals for customer interaction, enhanced customer relationship management (CRM), and digital marketing tools.

6) Predictive analytics. Analyzing historical activities is no longer sufficient; ERP must accurately predict trends, forecast sales, and anticipate demand in resources. Analyzing data and predicting results based on data science gives another advantage – being prepared with the resources needed for production, eliminating gaps and delays – improving productivity and helping meet customer expectations for delivery. Workers will no longer be waiting for the right raw materials to arrive, especially critical in maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and service centers where some parts are slow-moving, not always kept in inventory, expensive, and difficult to transport.

7) Proactive decision making. Outdated ERP solutions tend to have limited tools, forcing the user to contend with clunky interfaces while clicking on multiple screens to hunt for the right information. Modern ERP solutions place an emphasis on usability and productivity. Mobile solutions speed up decision-making by allowing personnel to access data while on the shop floor, in the warehouse, or on the road visiting customers.

8) Preventive maintenance. A digital strategy often incorporates smart sensors to monitor the condition of equipment, machinery, vehicles, and material handling equipment. The goal is to identify early symptoms of performance failure when there is still time to take corrective measures and prevent unplanned downtime. To optimize the use of sensor technology, have systems in place for enterprise asset maintenance (EAM), which includes managing parts inventory, tracking service history, technician scheduling, and managing warranties. Advanced digital strategies will have little impact if the basics of equipment maintenance are overlooked.

9) Tech-centric workforce. Finding skilled technical workers can be difficult, another reason cloud deployment makes sense. The cloud provider takes responsibility for upgrades, system maintenance, and security. The CIO, IT director, and IT personnel can focus on high-impact strategic functions, leaving day-to-day IT management to others.

10) 3D printing, robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. These disruptive technologies are receiving plenty of attention, and for good reason. They are the innovative tools that will transform business and set new paths to greater profits and improved performance. A&D manufacturers were among the first and continue to be dominant users of 3D printing. The advantages for prototyping, testing, and creating one-off, complex parts are well documented. Robotics are also often used when micro-level precision is critical.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are finding a place in A&D companies, used in training and testing, from pilots to service technicians. Simulation chambers no longer need to be full-sized rooms, they only require specialized goggles and gloves, letting users experience a situation as if they are actually there. Highly skilled technicians are in demand, so any tactic that can bring a novice up to speed quickly or leverage the tribal knowledge of a veteran technician is valuable. Full optimization of such technology requires a highly flexible ERP solution that has the architecture to integrate seamlessly with devices and other platforms.

Next steps

Planning and launching a digital strategy is no easy task. It makes sense to form a strategy upfront that involves a modern ERP solution. The ERP will bring practical applications that the enterprise needs now to be competitive and satisfy customers. Start work on a digital strategy now by putting the right foundation in place that will support you tomorrow and beyond.


About the author: Ed Talerico is aerospace and defense industry director at Infor. He can be reached at 800.260.2640.