Welcome to Boeing's factory of the future


The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also called Industry 4.0, will be marked by the convergence of digital, biological, and physical or mechanical systems.


Manufacturing revolution comes to the U.K.

By Gary Hilton and James Needham
Boeing Sheffield

When Boeing officially opened its first European fabrication plant in South Yorkshire last fall, it wasn’t just the newest for the company. Boeing Sheffield, with its fully digital-capable infrastructure and state-of-the-art machinery, is a herald for what’s to come in manufacturing everywhere.

The site was designed to be the model for Industry 4.0 in the company. The approach was conceived through design-thinking principles aligned to the Boeing production system. The philosophy is concentric around users and how they leverage technology to perform their jobs. This way, the technical design is always focused on enabling the factory and mitigating repetitive motion.

Boeing Sheffield will make more than 100 different high-tech actuation system components for 737 and 767 jets from raw materials sourced in the U.K. These components, used on the trailing edge of both models’ wings, are responsible for extending and retracting wing flaps during different phases of flight.

The 6,200-square-meter factory is the newest Boeing Fabrication site. It is also the flagship of vertical integration— the combination in one company of two or more stages of production normally operated by separate companies. The factory is strategically located beside the U.K.’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), founded in 2001 by Boeing and the University of Sheffield.

Boeing’s partnership with the AMRC allows the team to accelerate research and development simultaneously with production operations. Boeing has multiple work packages ongoing with the AMRC in multiple value streams, including the digital thread. Before Boeing Sheffield officially opened its doors, the AMRC produced virtual production system models to optimize space, materials and machinery. The models showed the capability for the facility to increase productivity by 50 percent in the future.

The digital thread work package was also specifically designed to de-risk and accelerate Industry 4.0 technologies that will be used in the Boeing Sheffield factory. Adopting the Industry 4.0 framework creates the potential to leverage all of the capabilities of Boeing’s 2nd Century Enterprise Systems.

The 2nd Century architecture is a native Internet of Things platform engineered to seamlessly share and communicate data across the production life-cycle management, manufacturing operations management and enterprise resource planning processes.

Through this new system, Boeing will transform systems and processes across the enterprise to enable better decision-making, improve productivity, reduce cost and generate revenue. Using 2nd Century Enterprise Systems also sets up an incubator model to displace legacy systems and rapidly move toward this future.

This strategy allows Boeing to evaluate these technologies for potential use worldwide across sites that are already operational. Boeing Sheffield’s factory network is the backbone of enabling Industry 4.0 with the ability to interconnect, collect and share data among all computing assets within the factory.

A robust yet highly scalable network capable of speeds up to 10 GB per second is coupled by the advanced yet flexible security design of a segmented control point.

This advanced Industry 4.0-ready network is complemented by a stout, powerful and highly versatile converged server chassis; direct attached storage; and network-managed uninterruptible power source equipment. This stack is a fully virtualized, high-availability design with full disaster recovery.

The factory is blanketed with radio frequency identification (RFID) hardware capable of ultra-wideband and passive tracking. This infrastructure is designed to track and trace tooling, parts, components and any other items deemed valuable to the success of the factory. The RFID hardware will be integrated with multiple systems to enable a supply chain digital thread for the factory.

A key component of the supply chain digital thread is Boeing Sheffield’s enterprise resource planning system. This system will use location data to manage material procurement through delivery. This data, together with performance data collected from the automation, will feed the site’s discrete event simulation model. This tool has the capability to model the factory from goods in to goods out in real time. The technology provides an unprecedented level of transparency into the production system and establishes the factory’s digital twin.

Boeing Sheffield will also be the first site to deploy the company’s manufacturing execution system apriso. This application is part of a forward-facing architecture designed to “bolt on” the rest of the 2nd Century portfolio as services become available.

The Sheffield site will also use an advanced tooling database management system to track, trace and maintain configuration management of all production cutting tools. These tools will all be RFID-enabled to allow digital tracking and monitoring of performance data, and to establish the engineering digital twin with the tooling model.

This will streamline the numerical control programming processes and ensure first-pass quality on cutting-tool delivery.