For some people, the phrase “factory of the future” conjures up visions of original equipment manufacturers with sprawling operations and thousands of workers. For our company, it is a far cry from that. Privately held, with 155 employees, we manufacture highly engineered mechanical components for launch vehicles, satellites and commercial aircraft. And yet we believe the factory of the future is just as important to our sustained success as it is for a large OEM. We are leveraging product life-cycle management (PLM) software called Windchill to help us achieve our goals. 

What started us down this path? With product lines that require the highest level of quality and lean manufacturing, our plants in Orange County, California, experience the same problems found in manufacturing across most industrial sectors. Aerospace and defense is often affected by configuration and change management, as well as supply chain concerns. 

Working for OEMs and top-tier suppliers, it is critical to ensure we are manufacturing to the latest revision of data. We also have a division that performs design engineering work and machine programming to create computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) data. Whether designing our own engineering or managing customer-provided designs, a solution is required to match revision levels of computer-aided design (CAD) and CAM, plus guarantee that the correct revision is manufactured from a work instruction. When a product is manufactured at the wrong revision level, it can cause rejections, reworks, scrap and schedule slippage. 

Revision control disruptions cause waste and jeopardize on-time-delivery. This is the reason we decided to use PLM for document management enterprise-wide, integrating our data for both engineering and manufacturing. If a revision change has been implemented, the software makes it obvious. Associating the CAD, CAM and work instruction makes it easy to access all relevant data from a single source. PLM also allows us to control each user’s access level. For example, our manufacturing operations can only access data that has been reviewed and approved. 

We eliminated the manual process of managing network folders to control revisions and states—a time- and cost-saving measure that reduced risks from human error. The workflow process helps the quality of engineering data we produce. An added benefit is that PLM keeps our data secure, an often critical need in the aerospace industry. We are more easily able to comply with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) since we can grant access to users on a part, project or program basis. 

While our initial problems were revision control and ITAR compliance, PLM has brought other benefits to our company. We now intend to further introduce technology to our factory of the future to solve other problems we are still experiencing, such as project management and lessening the paperwork required through quality and manufacturing. Some of these issues could be handled by our PLM software’s extensions, and we hope to see similar returns on investment with those. There can be a learning curve that requires a training investment for employees, but PLM has been a significant advancement in our journey toward becoming the factory of the future.

Stuart Weiler is director of PLM at Elite Aerospace Group based in Tustin, California.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.