THE AEROSPACE, OIL AND SHIPBUILDING industries share common problems with the nuclear industry: long investment cycle, central role of safety and security issues, requirement to be competitive in the face of a global competitive environment, and the need to adapt previous models quickly. Digital technology can help meet all these challenges.

For close to a decade, the digitalisation undertaken by the aerospace, oil and shipbuilding industries has played a key role in their competitiveness and growth. Alain Guillou, the HR Director of the DCNS group, a French military shipbuilder, describes how the group has seen the arrival of newcomers on the military shipbuilding market, in particular in Asia. In this context, DCNS “must become more competitive, using different methods from those of its international competitors”. The challenge is so great that only a major transformation of working methods by digital technology is likely to provide effective solutions. For Airbus, which has to maintain its competitive edge over its long-time rival, Boeing, and in the face of newcomers, such as the Canadian Bombardier or the Chinese Comac, the challenge is similar.

For these companies, the increased competitiveness expected as a result of digitalisation also lies in faster development and construction cycles. The involvement of the sector’s players is central to this movement. Philippe Laflandre, vice-president, Airbus Defence & Space, explains: “it is absolutely essential to develop a supply chain capable of managing the various steps in the life of a programme”. This global giant of the aerospace industry, which controls and coordinates several hundred different companies, has set up the BoostAeroSpace collaborative platform with a number of other major players in the sector (Safran, Thales, Dassault Aviation, etc.), in which contractors and subcontractors share their data, from design through to large-scale production. This approach integrating the supply chain saves time across an entire programme. For Airbus, this is a “key factor for gaining a decisive, lasting competitive advantage”. Speeding up the cycles also involves speeding up innovation times, in particular by reducing time taken for obtaining certifications. The complexity of the certification procedures for equipment is an obstacle to product innovation. Also, says Guillou, while the use of 3D tools by DCNS during the design phases “totally changes the way teams work” it also changes “the relationships with the certification bodies”.

For this leader in the military shipbuilding industry, which also uses nuclear energy for its submarines, “these relationships have a major impact on the quality of products and the timescales within which we can deliver them”. DCNS therefore works with third party certification organisations to start the certification phase earlier, as soon as the 3D digital mockups of products are available. This certainly saves time, shaving six months off vessel delivery times, which represents a significant competitive advantage for DCNS.

Digital technology also leads to improved performance during the shipbuilding phases. The use of full 3D digital mockups of vessels, in particular using additive manufacturing technologies, enables DCNS to carry out trials. The group has thus been able to test new propeller concepts more quickly and easily, for example carrying out tests on 3D printed hollow propellers, designed to reduce noise. 3D technology also means that, using augmented reality technologies, it is possible to work in parallel on the drawings and the actual installation, as seen by the operator once the product is in operation. This is an approach which makes “the operation visible” and enables “modifications to be incorporated, and elements removed or added in real time”. For Guillou, augmented reality is “an enormous competitive advantage in ensuring consistency between design and production”. These innovations are bearing fruit: in 2016, the DCNS group signed the “contract of the century” with Australia to build twelve submarines for a sum of 50 billion Australian dollars, beating off German and Japanese competitors.

Unlocking creativity

How does digital technology change innovation methods? The three industries give numerous answers to this question asked by the nuclear industry. The first is to encourage initiative and creativity in the company’s workforce. This is the approach chosen by Airbus, by which any employee who has an idea “can work on innovations and submit their proposals” by means of a “digital passport”. For Total, as Carole Vial, responsible for such questions in the energy company, explains, digital innovation was “initially customer-led”, and then the “booster” lab was set up. Currently housed in a space covering 700m2 in the La Défense business district (the aim being to have a global network eventually), it focuses on accelerating projects developed by staff. Here they are ‘helped’ and ‘supported,’ so that very quickly, in a ‘few months’, a concrete service or product emerges.

For DCNS, unlike Total, the digitalisation approach is not “customer-led, but in-house, on the ground”. In 2016 DCNS decided to set up dedicated innovation and action structures. “We handed over the reins”, says Guillou, explaining that the group “put several million euros on the table” giving complete freedom for innovations developed by staff. The idea behind this investment is “that the new generations and these new technologies do not get on well with interventionism”. Giving employees freedom is perceived as the “only way to achieve real disruption in terms of performance, competitiveness and digital technology”. Taking this risk seems to have been opportune because it is already leading to tangible results: “we have chosen to encourage initiative and we now have several hundred innovations on the table, with augmented reality topics and the establishment of fablab”. “Our next job will be to narrow them down” Guillou adds.

Capitalising on data

For DCNS, as for Total with its oil platforms, a military vessel such as a frigate is a source of data. The 700 or so on-board sensors are “all potential connected objects” and represent a major data collection source. This data enables predictive maintenance policies to be established, which, according to Guillou, promotes change and saves time.

Like unit outages on nuclear power plants, DCNS optimises the availability of vessels and reduces their maintenance cost using the operating data of the vessels to which it has access. Total has also established a predictive maintenance policy, developed by a dedicated unit at its Pau site in the Pyrénées Atlantiques region.

By remotely assessing the operation of the group’s machines throughout the world, this unit has improved the availability of the group’s installations since it was set up in 2015. This approach represents “a huge financial advantage” explains Vial. Driven by this success, the oil company now intends to implement other predictive maintenance policies across its exploration & production and refining & chemicals installations.

Protecting against cyber risk

Despite the savings made and expected by increased digitalisation, the risks associated with data security and confidentiality are raising concerns within not only Total but also DCNS and Airbus. For Total, which has chosen to make extensive use of the cloud, one of the main challenges is supporting employees. Vial has observed two extreme behaviours in staff: some are “excessive and ultra- confidential” while others “don’t know the rules and may put the group at risk”.

As a defence company, DCNS faces significant security challenges, which has led the company to structure the relationships between its IS department, its human resources and its security differently. “We have made huge changes and rebuilt our in-company security management mechanisms” explains Guillou. For DCNS, digitalising its activities meant designing its IT structures differently and segregating the data. Thus, each of the group’s IT systems is classified according to its degree of confidentiality. A “very complex” approach which DCNS “has not fully worked out” admits Guillou, explaining that the shipbuilding group still has “a limited overview of the technologies implemented”.

For Airbus, while BoostAeroSpace contributes to the competitiveness of the company and its partners, this platform also challenges its users “to write a security policy which defines the role of each of the ISDs and to identify those responsible for security in each of the companies involved”. The necessary traceability is in fact “extremely complex to implement”, with the particular challenge that “suppliers offer the same traceability as that offered to administrators”. The resulting administration problems “are not easy to resolve” concludes Laflandre. Committed to digitalisation, the nuclear industry can learn from these experiences and successfully complete what it has started: increasing its competitiveness and speeding up its innovation time.  

Nuclear Engineering International has published a special edition for distribution at this year¹s World Nuclear Exhibition.

The focus of the special edition is on how digital solutions, virtual reality, robotics and other emerging technologies have the potential to secure the future of nuclear power.

With existing reactors facing increasing market pressures, digitalisation and automation offer opportunities to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Robotics, data analytics and new simulation capabilities can aid cleanup of legacy facilities. New technology is also revolutionising the workplace, and can help the nuclear industry to attract a new generation of talent to replace its ageing workforce.

Looking ahead to the next decades, innovative technologies from small modular reactors to Generation IV designs and new fusion concepts, promise to make the next generation of nuclear energy more competitive with other energy sources.

Read your World Nuclear Exhibition Special Edition – New technology encouraging excellence in nuclear energy