Since the first flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright's Flyer in 1903 it has been true that for competitive performance the development of an aircraft's systems is key to winning sales. Today there is now the need for the innovation of a technological chain that will seamlessly link concept to design, to test and fabrication to shrink the time to market.
Finmeccanica's Alenia Aeronautica has realised that competitors BAE Systems and Dassault have drawn similar conclusions and are seeking to employ comparable solutions.
Dassault is to create a virtual platform for the proposed European unmanned combat air vehicle Neuron, linking each partner into a design and production network. And BAE is involved in the UK government-supported £17.4 million ($36.2 million) CFMS Core programme that will develop software with virtual platform applications and realise a more complete picture of product life-cycle.
Alenia's role as prime contractor on the C-27J Spartan military cargo carrier and ATR cargo aircraft, as a partner on the Sukhoi Superjet 100 and ATR 42/72 regional aircraft, and risk-sharing supplier on the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 has also convinced it that the future lies with collaborative partnerships with the customer. Alenia believes the key to making that policy successful is the virtual platform-centred business.
The race is on to win customers by shrinking the time to market by doing as much as possible in cyberspace before the first metal is cut. For this, Alenia is banking on its multi-year Alenia Networked Enterprise Transformation Initiative (Alenet) programme, a comprehensive effort to re-engineer the company's processes around a virtual platform technology that will be that link chain.
Senior vice-president head of engineering Nazario Cauceglia says: "Alenet is a programme to redesign company processes to aid our selection." This is not just a special project for Alenia, its progress is being monitored by its parent company for its potential application across its family of businesses.
Through Alenet, Alenia wants to use the extended enterprise concept to redesign processes with new methodologies and rules and to implement them by updating the company's organisation, processes, skill base and information and communication technology tools. The extended enterprise concept is the idea of changing a business to extend shared services, co-sourcing and outsourcing to partners, suppliers and customers.
IT is seen as key to reconciling the combination of diverging factors the industry faces. These include increasingly complex projects and market trends of improved product quality, product cost reduction and fast time to delivery, all of which creaate difficulties for the day-to-day practicalities of management.
Heading this transformation project is Alenia's Eurofighter EF2000 programme chief engineer, Marco Baroero. "We want to operate with one model [of working that gives us] the capability to have a different level of integration, involvement [across many] project(s)," he says.
Elements of seamless technology are used for the maritime patrol ATR 72/500 project with Turkey
Alenia's management deems the Eurofighter and Spartan programmes to have been their most complex to date. The company's model needs to be able to cope with four possible partnerships - integration with the client as a prime contractor sharing project information and documentation with other major item manufacturers new partnership models with customers where Alenia acts as a "small prime" providing services and direct collaboration with clients in multinational projects where Alenia is a consortium member.
The virtual platform is seen as the solution to resolving day-to-day difficulties of extending design collaboration by bringing together remote computer-aided engineering, design, technology, manufacturing and production planning teams.
Alenia's management has spent two years documenting in detail the qualifications, experience and skills of all its personnel to ensure employees can adapt to changes. The company is also using virtual enterprise knowledge and experience from its involvement in the European Union sixth framework programme's four-year �74 million ($107 million) Vivace project.
This involved 63 companies and began in January 2004 with the objectives of contributing to a 5% overall reduction in the financial spend to bring to market a new aircraft and a 5% reduction in the cost of the final phase of any particular aircraft's development.
Alenia participated in Vivace's virtual aircraft and advanced capabilities sub-projects, with a focus on structure simulation context management, fuselage structure optimisation and flight physics simulation traceability.
Vivace developed many elements of virtual enterprise information systems to a prototype stage and created a concept to allow a programme's partners and subcontractors to interface and exchange information - the Virtual Enterprise Collaboration (VEC)-HUB.
"The scope of [Alenet] is wider, but some goals of both projects are close and the Vivace results will be taken into account and influence the development of Alenet," says Alenia.
One common goal of Vivace and Alenet is the need for a seamless exchange of data. Baroero says: "The data needs to flow into other software to avoid normal [manual] data entry errors." For this, the company has selected MSC.Software's Simmanager for simulation and virtual test data management and process automation. Alenia's chief technology officer Alessandro Franzoni says: "This is a critical factor in driving the shift from vertical silos to a growing interdependence."
As well as MSC.Software, Alenia has partnered Finmeccanica computing company Quadrics to create the computational power needed. Quadrics has installed and is managing a "high-performance computing centre" at Alenia's Pomigliano d'Arco plant in Naples. It is this technological base the company expects to enable it to provide virtual test services and competences, based on Alenet, to the other subsidiaries of the Finmeccanica group.
Alenia also wants to improve its digital mock-up and manufacturing capabilities with this computing power. These would include virtual operation with computer-generated avatar machine operators and technicians to check manufacturing actions and the in-service maintenance accessibility of subsystems.
Despite the complexity and strategic nature of the work, Alenia has not waited to make a sudden step change. It has introduced elements of this new seamless technological chain into its C27-J Spartan twin-turboprop medium tactical airlifter programme and the $219 million Meltem-3 anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol variant ATR 72/500 project it is sharing with Turkey. Cauceglia says: "We are investing more and more in virtual prototyping to create a virtual platform to save a lot of physical testing."
Like Vivace, Alenia's aim is for that technological chain to eventually have a platform that can be used for what is the holy grail of today's aerospace industry - aircraft certification in cyberspace.