BAE Systems unveils smart factory that will build the Tempest fighter

BAE Systems has unveiled the futuristic smart factory that will be used to develop and manufacture Britain’s Tempest fighter jet. Billed as a first-of-its-kind factory, the new facility at Warton, Lancashire combines robotics with other advanced technologies that will allow production lines to adapt much faster by removing the need for slow, expensive retooling.

One of the biggest bottlenecks for the modern aerospace industry is that conventional engineering and manufacturing techniques are far too slow for a rapidly changing world. Where once whole new models of aircraft could be rolled out on an almost yearly basis, modern aircraft, especially warplanes, can take decades, even generations, to go into service, with many becoming obsolete before their numbers even come up to strength.

Being developed in partnership with Italy and Sweden, Britain’s newest fighter for the international market, the Tempest, is hoped to break that cycle by incorporating new digital design and robotic manufacturing techniques to bring down development and production times significantly.

Artist's concept of the Tempest
Artist’s concept of the Tempest

The result of a multimillion-pound investment involving 40 blue chip and SME companies, along with academic institutions, the new BAE facility uses off-the-shelf robotic technology, pick-by-light technology, 3D printing, and virtual and augmented reality. The key to this is cobotics. That is, figuring out how humans can collaborate seamlessly with robots. In this scenario, flexible robots take on the heavy lifting and can shift quickly from one process to another without the need for conventional retooling.

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According to BAE, modern aircraft design requires precision on the scale of a third of the width of a human hair, so the off-the-shelf robots will require modifications to get them up to speed, but when the factory is up and running, such automation will allow operators to concentrate on higher-skilled and strategic tasks, while managers can oversee operations from a fully digitized, virtual office. The result is the capability to deliver combat aircraft cheaply and in half the time.

“We’ve collaborated with the best of UK industry and academia to develop a cutting-edge facility that combines current and emerging technologies, ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of combat air technology development,” says Dave Holmes, Manufacturing Director for BAE Systems Air. “Driving our manufacturing capabilities forward as we prepare for the fourth Industrial Revolution, will sustain and develop critical skill sets and ensure we can continue to deliver military capability to address future threats, whilst improving productivity and delivering value for money for our customers.”

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