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Embracing a digital culture: A journey through digital transformation in aerospace and defence

Tom Mulcahy
Aug 17, 2023

As we begin to gather pace in the run-up to DSEI 2023, we’ll be sharing a series of blogs under our ‘powering your digital capabilities, defining your digital culture’ DSEI banner. The second blog in the series comes from Tom Mulcahy, who recounts his engineering career journey in the aerospace and defence industry and the subsequent rise in digital transformation across the industry.

Having started my engineering career in 2018, I joined the aerospace industry when Digital Transformation was already a hot topic. The adoption of digital technology requires organisations to overhaul their engineering facilities, disrupting legacy approaches to traditional manufacturing processes, and these come with large infrastructural, technological, and cultural change. The latter of which comes with its own set of challenges.

Before transitioning to Consultancy, I worked in the Repair Technology team at Rolls-Royce, Civil Aerospace, which gave me first-hand experience promoting the adoption of innovative technology from inside a highly regulated aerospace company. Since starting my career, I have seen the advances in technology and increasing levels of automation, with which has come the development of digital manufacturing teams and communities that are championing change within organisations. I also saw developments in advanced manufacturing techniques, and I had the opportunity to work on exciting tools and techniques, including white light scanning for 3D inspection and robotic welding repairs.

The challenge I found was that whilst I had started my career when the industry was already heavily computer based, the longer standing employees with years of experience had been there since there were draught boards, and they saw new technology and IT implementation causing issues and headaches for them. There is an understandable resistance to change in manufacturing; a workforce which is not traditionally technology enabled will only have a certain tolerance for change. I found that when working with the technologies I wanted to promote, the best way to bring people on the transformation journey with you was to get the end users involved and demonstrate the benefits and simplicity unlocked from the solution.

My most enjoyable and valuable time spent in engineering was with the staff on the shop floor. I worked closely with the manufacturing engineers, welders and machine operators who worked with service-run engine hardware daily and used the tools and techniques developed by engineering. I had the opportunity to work across Civil and Defence facilities, designing and conducting engineering trials using new technology and methods to gather data alongside the end users. This gave me the opportunity to really understand the pain points of adopting new methods, but it also allowed engineers to understand the benefits of new ways of working and become inspired to use them. An example of this was when I trialled a new mobile inspection app to capture data on 400 service-run turbine components and demonstrated the power of the insights which could be attained from the images to be used for component degradation modelling and shop-visit forecasting. This type of collaboration between manufacturing and engineering is the key to implementing digital change.

With the adoption of these innovative technologies and techniques comes demand for new skills and capabilities, such as software engineers and data analysts, to build models and develop these insights from the data. This changes the focus of the graduate talent pool, which puts engineering firms in competition with the tech, media, and banking organisations. The sad reality I saw first-hand was the attrition of graduates, floods of newly trained engineers leaving manufacturing organisations to join software companies who can offer higher salaries and offer more flexible working conditions, including remote working and the ability to work more creatively in less regulated industries. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturing companies are beginning to embrace the digital cultural change needed to retain and attract talent such as hybrid working, but this brings with it cybersecurity risks compared to the traditional methods of handling data through secure communications channels. A challenge in aerospace and defence is managing the core, niche emerging capabilities to ensure businesses can optimise the competitive advantage of IT/OT enablement.

Personally, the reason I joined the aerospace industry is the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology on innovative projects and the sense of pride which comes with working on these products. This is the advantage that aerospace and defence will have over their competitors, which will help them build the talent pipeline they need to support engineering’s increasing reliance on IT.

To read more blogs in our powering your digital capabilities, defining your digital culture DSEI series, please see quick links below.

Blog 1) From my office in Bath to across the globe: Developing safety critical systems in an ever-expanding digital world

Tom Mulcahy

Consultant | Aerospace & Defence
Tom is a Consultant in the Aerospace & Defence Manufacturing team, with six years’ experience in various engineering roles at Rolls-Royce, Civil Aerospace, before joining Capgemini. Tom is a Chartered Engineer and has spent time working in both Design and Aftermarket services for turbofan engines, with a focus on developing MRO inspection and repair technology to reduce cost, increase efficiency and create more sustainable servicing solutions for aerospace components.