Robotics innovation thrives in the heart of Montreal
It is unusual for aerospace workers to take the subway or bicycle to work. But not when your average staff age hovers around 30 and your offices are in the heart of Montreal.
Is this the face of a generation that will define aerospace's cutting edge? What AV&R Vision & Robotics does and how it does it may offer some clues. Formed 17 years ago, the company's identity comes from solving what CEO and President Eric Beauregard calls “automated projects that are unsolvable.” Ninety-five percent of its customers are in aerospace, nearly all in gas turbine engines. The rest are in industrial engines. Medical systems are on the horizon.
AV&R's customer base includes all major engine makers—, Pratt & Whitney, —and their industrial partners. Traditionally, 25% of its sales were within Canada, another quarter in the U.S. and the rest split between Europe and Asia. But the big and single-aisle reengining projects have prompted a shift to 50% in the U.S., with Pratt already ordering for its geared turbofan and Aviation doing the same for Leap.
Most of the automation and visual inspection work concerns original equipment manufacturing of rotating parts—blisks, blades and vanes. AV&R also supports overhauls with customers such as Delta TechOps and Chromalloy.
AV&R assembles robotic systems and provides the software to run them. The robotic components themselves come from outside manufacturers.
When Beauregard joined AV&R six years ago, he was surprised at how little automation was in use by aerospace manufacturers. “I expected to see automation everywhere. To me, aerospace is a modern industry, its specifications are so tight,” he says. “But we are still doing things manually.” The point is that machines are more accurate than people.
New, rather than existing programs, are most likely to bring change, because change involves investment and customer and regulatory approvals. New programs offer the prospect of the efficiency breakthroughs that robotics promise.
Pratt & Whitney Canada is one example of the latter. It selected an AV&R inspection system for its Mirabel factory north of Montreal, where it is assembling theseries for the regional aircraft. Before shipment, the engines undergo an AV&R robotic fashion shoot. The robot's camera zooms around every angle of the engine's exterior, firing off about 300 strobe shots in a matter of seconds. Each image is measured against a control profile to ensure that all parts are properly in place. The reason: 80% of all quality problems arise from errors in exterior workmanship. “The goal is not to see what the human eye cannot,” he says. “We're there to see better than humans can. Humans are not objective; machines are there to compensate for those [human] problems.”
The key to understanding AV&R is in who it hires and the company's youth culture, which regards the unsolvable in robotics and automation as a challenge. “Young people have less experience, so they fear less and are more open-minded,” he says. “They eat technology when they wake up, when they have lunch and when they go to sleep.”
Another aspect is to stay small. In the world of automation, AV&R is a “drop in the sea,” Beauregard says. “So the only way [it] can become different [from competitors] is yearly investments of 10-15% of revenues in innovation. We need to put a solution into mode today that nobody [thought] we could solve.”
The company works from an evolving three-year, technology road map for meeting customer expectations. The plan is subject to adjustment on a quarterly basis and a more thorough review as the fiscal year draws to a close. “The road map shows the vision of where we are going and where our customers are going. We cross-check to put them together,” he says.
Big change is not a goal, so setting aside the plan to satisfy a large order leads to short-term vision that is counterproductive. “Our visibility is for three years and each year we add another year,” Beauregard says.
He acknowledges that measuring how innovation helps a client is difficult. But it is part of the plan. Robotics makes manufacturing, inspection and repair more efficient and increases quality levels by driving variables out. So the common innovation measure of success is return-on-investment figures.
But AV&R takes into account feedback from customers and employees. It uses a matrix to measure customer perception/satisfaction against the company's innovation. “Then we measure that against employees' workloads,” Beauregard says.
The future for robotics in aerospace is brightened by the likelihood that manufacturers will pull back work sent to low-cost countries in favor of machines that do not have language/cultural barriers, do have consistent quality standards and do not suffer from repetitive motion injuries.
The company attracts many of its permanent employees with internships for engineering students from Montreal's ETS University. AV&R gravitates to technicians who become engineers. “They're practical,” Beauregard says. “You want to have people who are flexible and hands-on.”