By Patricia Panchak
Click to download the slides from Virgin Orbit’s session at MESA’s 2018 North American Conference.
When Virgin Orbit launched its digital transformation journey, one of its goals was to identify and implement technologies that would help it build a digital thread. The idea was to digitize the business’ processes end-to-end—"from the launch event, which is the company’s key event, and back all the way through test, integration, manufacturing, design, and all the way to the original requirements—either engineering requirements or business customer requirements — that drove decisions such as what the vehicle should perform, how it should perform and so forth,” said Andrzej Goryca, Senior Enterprise Systems Manager of the company.
That wasn’t the end goal, of course. As a relatively young company—it’s built about half a dozen rockets, so far—the ultimate goal was to design, build and launch rockets into low-earth orbit, even as they “design, build and launch our business—to take the business to the next level,” Goryca said.
“We would like to scale up in the output of our manufacturing and launch operations, but not necessarily in the amount of facilities and headcount,” he explained to attendees of the 2018 MESA North American Conference.
Another goal as it digitized the processes was to limit the proliferation of OT or IT applications, to introduce systematic solutions only where and when they add value. “We want to make sure we have the right systems for the right tasks,” Gorcya said, adding: “We have a vision of one system, one user.”
For Virgin Orbit, that means using PLM and a few other systems in the engineering space, MES in the manufacturing and quality space, and ERP in the planning in the supply chain, purchasing, procurement and finance space.
The Value MES Delivers
As for the value of MES to the digital thread, Goryca declared: “We can’t have the full digital transformation without the big piece called manufacturing.” With it, operators can pull data about key events or details about a product or its origin, etc., as well as use it to implement operational efficiencies, he added.
He enumerated the benefits of MES within the digital thread:
1. Automatic data collection: “The No. 1 value that we realized from the get-go is that we started getting as-build records,” Goryca said. By capturing, analyzing and trending as-build records, along with cost data, Virgin Orbit identifies the most efficient way to build a rocket. This information is vital to its goal of growing the business without growing headcount or other overhead.
2. Repeatability: Being able to repeat processes that work is much harder to do if you’re maintaining data on paper, rather than digitally, Goryca said, adding, “It’s much harder to do if you do not have an MES.”
3. Control: Using an MES, Virgin Orbit can define a process plan that controls how to build the rocket, as well as a bill of materials of all the components that go into it. It can then run that information through a certification/validation cycle, “to get the right people involved—the design engineer, the manufacturing engineer, quality engineer—to make sure we’re building the right thing, and building it right, with all the right controls in place.”
4. Digitized records: “Paper may be OK for one or two or three rockets being built concurrently, but it’s already not OK for us, because we’re building five,” Goryca said. “We already see the value-add of managing the volume of transactions that otherwise would have been done on paper.”
With MES, the metrics are “at our fingertips,” he said. “We just run the report and we see how well we’re doing, plan against action, in terms of labor, hours spent and cost of goods sold, etc., so all the bottom line type equation feeds to that as well.”
5. Making better-informed decisions: MES collects and analyzes the data, turning data into information, which help the “human in the loop” to make better decisions more quickly.
Virgin Orbit visualizes its digital transformation journey as a climb from beneath sea-level to the top of a mountain. Speaking at the recent MESA North America Conference, Sr. Enterprise Systems Manager Andrzjej Gorcya said the company is now just above the waterline.
The Digital Thread
Once established, the digital thread conveys further benefits, including better collaboration and communication, and less dependence on “tribal knowledge,” according to Goryca.
“We’re vertically integrated, so we want to take advantage of the fact that we have the skillset onsite,” he said. “but even in our co-located, vertically integrated environment, it’s still hard to enable collaboration in the right level, to the right degree.”
With the digital thread, everyone has access to the same up-to-date data and information, all the time, “one version of the truth,” Goryca said, adding: “We’re integrating systems, so you don’t transfer data in any other shape or form other than it being transferred automatically based on processes and approvals and readiness of the data.” This facilitates collaboration and eliminates the time-wasting debates that arise when each group maintains its own excel spreadsheet, with its own set metrics.
Similarly, the digital thread automates communications. When a change is made in one part of the thread, it’s automatically disseminated to each function along the chain through automated updates and alerts.
Finally, the digital thread maintains the store of data, information and knowledge as its created, so reliance on one person who runs one aspect of production—the tribal knowledge--is eliminated.
None of this would be possible without the MES or its integration into the other systems.
Toward 2020 and beyond
As it grows its business and continues its digital transformation, Virgin Orbit’s plan is to continue to streamline, integrate and optimize operations as it pursues further automation. Its approach will be to “automate where automation makes sense,” Goryca said.
The goal is to allow humans to perform work that humans do best, while machines and software systems do what they do best, and, in some cases, to augment human capabilities with automation. As important, it will continue to optimize user experience of automated systems, making the interaction between humans and machines more intuitive.
By creating the end-to-end digital thread, integrating PLM, MES and ERP and other systems, Virgin Orbit ultimately seeks to achieve the most cost-effective, value-creating use of humans, systems and machines to operate its business.
Patricia Panchak is an independent business and technology journalist, editor and public speaker. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.