Strata drives to automate manufacturing processes

Ismail Ali Abdulla, CEO of Strata Manufacturing, discusses the benefits and challenges of automation in aerospace manufacturing and how adopting automated processes is helping the UAE to achieve its ambition as a global aviation innovation hub
Strata's workforce will continue to play a key part in the company's manufacturing development, even with the introduction of automation.
Strata's workforce will continue to play a key part in the company's manufacturing development, even with the introduction of automation.

Mubadala Investment Company’s aerospace unit, Strata Manufacturing, is evolving. The consistency and quality brought by automated manufacturing processes is becoming increasingly attractive for airframers and Strata is one company capitalising on the trend.

Since its inception in 2009, Strata has been incorporating some of the latest techniques in its operations and is today one of the go-to suppliers of advanced aircraft parts for OEMs including Airbus, Boeing, Leonardo and Pilatus.

Ismail Ali Abdulla, CEO of Strata Manufacturing, explains that while the company’s first decade of operations can be characterised by its expertise in manufacturing composite aero-structures components, the next decade will highlight how cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, including automation, will play a key role in advancing and expanding Strata’s manufacturing capabilities.

“This is now evidenced by our adoption and deployment of Hot Drape Forming (HDF) and computer-controlled robotic Automated Tape Layup (ATL) machines, to fully-automate the assembly of A350-900 Inboard Flaps (IBF) wing part for Airbus,” he comments.

Strata recently delivered 100 shipsets of A350-900 Inboard Flaps (IBF) for Airbus. Designed to increase the total lift capability of the wing of an aircraft, an IBF is mounted on the trailing edge of the wing to increase the wing’s surface during take-off and landing and improve stability during flight. Strata has moved from assembling to fabricating IBFs at its facility in the Nibras Al Ain Aerospace Park.

“Strata’s efforts towards automation re-enforces our capacity to continuously deliver high-quality components in challenging timeframes, ensures better efficiencies and quality across our production lines and facilitates our evolution to manufacture more complex aircraft parts,” Abdulla  says.

“Automation also empowers us to strengthen our position in the global aerospace supply chain and further elevate our status as a key player in a rapidly evolving and highly-competitive global aerospace sector.”

Strata has invested significantly in automation. But the financial decision makes business sense, according to Abdulla, who is aware of the customer demand for automation. Abdulla explains that automation provides Strata with an opportunity to increase productivity, with enhanced speed, precision and accuracy throughout its manufacturing process, which will ultimately benefit our partners and customers.

“For example, Strata’s two ATL machines lay unidirectional prepreg materials onto a flat bed, which is then transferred to a mould tool for further processing. Both machines drastically reduce processing times in comparison to a standard hand layup process. On the other hand, the HDF machine pre-forms carbon fibre components for aircraft parts and enables faster production of high-quality composite parts. Its infrared radiation heating system quickly and evenly softens carbon fibre, delivering accurate parts free from stress-wrinkling.”

Of course, some industry observers have their concerns over automation. Not least is its impact on the workforce. With more machines to do the work of employees, automated processes threaten to reduce the number of people and skills required in aerospace manufacturing. However, Abdulla believes that automated manufacturing processes actually complements Strata’s efforts towards developing and harnessing the full potential of its workforce. He says that Strata works closely with partners in underscoring the importance of R&D and the sharing of cutting-edge technology, knowledge and expertise. Abdulla provides the example of Strata’s partnership with Boeing, which provides training opportunities for Strata’s engineers at their US facilities.

“In our adoption and deployment of ATL machines, five Strata employees, including two female Emiratis, travelled to Spain for a five-day training course. The training course included theoretical classes and hands-on exercises covering a complete overview of the system such as machine operation and maintenance. In addition, two Emiratis played an instrumental role in the development and deployment of the ATL machines on the Airbus A350 IBF.”

Abdulla cedes however that there are indeed challenges associated with implementing automation. The biggest of which lies in formulating and implementing a strategy that will optimise manufacturing capabilities, as well as cost and operational efficiencies with potential returns on investment (ROI). While a host of automation technologies are available, in-depth, scientific and business case studies must be conducted thoroughly to justify automation’s long-term benefits. As in any business organisation, capital expenditure on automation – both in terms of adopting and deploying machines and conducting training – must be clearly rationalised and validated by prospects of sustainable business growth, Abdulla notes.

In addition to finding the ideal strategy, automation arguably makes a company more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Abdulla is aware that in the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technology, corresponding risks and exposure to cyber threats exists.

“Strata recognises this and has taken all necessary precautions to safeguard and secure all of our digitalised assets and automated manufacturing processes from any potential threats of cyber-attacks,” he says. “Appropriate protocols are in place to mitigate any exposure to unsecure systems, with further intentions of consistently implementing the same across any new technology adoptions in future.”

In UAE’s aim to become an aviation hub, Strata is at the heart of the country’s aerospace manufacturing efforts. It is hardly surprising therefore that automated manufacturing is a key part of the company’s future development and ambitions.

Abdulla comments: “Within the UAE’s aspiration of creating an aviation hub, Strata fills a vital manufacturing sector component that meets a growing composite aero-structures components requirement of a global aerospace and aviation industry. Beyond building state-of-the-art airports, aviation facilities, or having the most reliable international carriers, the UAE is firmly establishing an aviation hub that addresses the aviation industry’s supply chain needs.”

It goes without saying however, that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to cause a drop in aircraft demand for the next few years. Already we have seen Airbus and Boeing strip back output by as much as 40% which will have a knock-on impact on their suppliers. Strata is in the fortunate position of being backed by a major investor. Nevertheless, the company is monitoring market developments and has put in place business continuity plans to safeguard its future. 

Explaining the company’s efforts to diversify, Abdulla comments: “We have recently announced completion of the Strata Solvay Advanced Materials (SSAM) facility and are moving significantly closer into establishing our status as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)’s first supplier carbon fibre prepreg products and only the fourth globally. In a joint venture with Solvay, Belgium’s materials and chemicals company, the SSAM facility will produce aerospace-grade pre-impregnated carbon fibre materials designed for primary structure applications in Boeing’s 777X programme.

“As the 8,500 square meter SSAM facility is currently being equipped with the latest technology and machinery prior to the testing and qualifying of processes, it heralds the beginning of Strata’s diversification journey and Abu Dhabi’s drive towards a sustainable homegrown manufacturing sector.”

Strata’s also began producing personal protective equipment products during the pandemic, demonstrating its ability to quickly adapt to different markets. Abdulla notes: “To address a sudden spike in the domestic demand for PPE products such as the N95 masks, Strata collaborated with Honeywell to locally produce these masks. The Strata-Honeywell N95 face masks utilise technology and machinery provided by Honeywell, while Strata has provided a dedicated space in its existing manufacturing facility in Al Ain, including the deployment of employees on the production line of the first of its kind manufacturing facility of N95 masks in the GCC. Production capacity is targeting over 30 million N95 masks per year.”

It could be argued that automation can in fact help to make a company more adaptable and accelerate its ability to adjust to new trends and even enter new markets. Automated manufacturing can diversify a company’s product portfolio and help it to weather future market challenges. But automation is just one area of next-generation manufacturing technologies that Strata is exploring and analysing.

“Through a dedicated R&D team, we undertake vigorous research to evaluate the contribution and benefit to furthering our manufacturing capabilities,” says Abdulla. “With an aim to diversify our business portfolio and compete across the wider aerospace value chain, we are also actively participating in encouraging STEM education across the UAE. Through our collaboration with Khalifa University, we have established a dedicated Aerospace Research and Innovation Centre (ARIC) that focuses on next-generation 4IR innovations such as 3D printing and automation.”

But it may be a while before Strata rolls out automation across all of its processes. After all, aerospace manufacturing requires a spark of human innovation before automation can be applied. Strata’s composite aero-structure component manufacturing process are complex and involve several stages of production tailored to specific parts or components, Abdulla explains.

“The entire process of manufacturing aircraft parts is guided by numerous rules that must be strictly complied with. As the safety assurance of passengers are of the utmost priority, Strata works closely with partners throughout the automation process to ensure that all processes, qualifications and quality standards are strictly adhered to.”

He concludes: “Automation is primarily implemented on large and complex aircraft parts. While one of automation’s key features is to avoid human error, the human element is still integral in manufacturing aircraft parts. A combination of automation and the human element all comes together to ensure that every part is manufactured according to the highest quality standards.”

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