Collaborative Workbenches

3D Project technologies and machine vision combined to aid users and increase productivity

Project Background

In 2018, BAE Systems worked closely with The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) to develop a prototype collaborative workbench for the production of aerospace assembly operations. The aim of the collaborative workbench was to:

  • Reduce the learning curves associated with product change
  • Allow information to be consumed in a modern manner
  • Accommodate a more transient workforce and support operations with greater flexibility
  • Create standard processes and put greater emphasis on the manufacturing engineering content produced

The prototype was revealed at the Farnborough International Airshow 2018 and received interest both internally within BAE Systems and from external organisations. Following this success, BAE Systems approached Fairfield Controls Systems (FCS) with the requirement to take the design from a prototype workbench to a workbench which could be delivered into a production environment. This project had several challenges, including:

  • Producing an innovative product using the latest Industry 4.0 technologies whilst working within BAE standards and specifications
  • Producing a workbench suitable for BAE systems operational procedures with future scalability
  • Design, build and put into operation a solution within 6 months to meet the production schedule
  • Integrate the workbenches into BAE Systems existing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and network infrastructure

Overview of the Collaborative Workbench

FCS designed a workbench which allowed the user to adjust the height and lighting levels to suit their personal preferences. These settings can be saved and then reloaded using their RFID identity card which automatically adjusts the workbench when logging on. This adjustment greatly increases the ergonomics and comfort for the user who is required to stand, orientate and work on a varied range of parts. These parts are generally complex in shape, come in many different sizes and comprise of numerous components.

Once logged on, the user receives work instructions which are issued from the BAE Systems’ SAP system. These operations include step-by-step instructions, which are followed to complete a work package. As the user steps through the instructions, an optical projection system is enabled to assist the user by highlighting specific areas of the work package that are being referred to within the current instructions. An automatic vision system is then used periodically to verify instructions have been completed correctly before moving on to the next instruction.


SAP System Interface

The workbench includes a SAP client where work instructions are loaded. As the user works through the work instructions, images, instructions and guides are projected onto the work package to support the instructions displayed on the SAP client. For security and confidentiality reasons, the Collaborative Workbenches are designed so that they do not store complete product data locally. A broker has been designed which acts as a gateway between the SAP server and the Workbenches. If the instruction being displayed on the engineer’s SAP client requires a projection or a visual verification, the SAP server passes a projection or verification file to the broker which then distributes these to the appropriate workbench. The projection files and verification files are used and then on completion of the work, instructions are deleted. As well as ensuring data is not stored insecurely, this method also provides the ability to modify work instructions, projection files and verification files within the SAP System, whilst keeping a configuration controlled environment.

Projection System

The workbenches make use of 3D optical projection technology. The system uses Augmented Reality through a hardware and software system. This imports existing and/or creates new 3D geometry, taken directly from CAD to project simple yet concise work instructions onto contoured surfaces to solve complex assembly tasks.

Verification System

The workbench includes a vision system which is used to verify that each assembly task has been carried out correctly. As part of the user’s work instructions, there are steps for verification. When the user reaches a verification step, the workbench lighting is automatically optimised for the visual inspection and then a smart camera analyses the work package. The work package is compared with verification files issued by the SAP system and the user is presented with a Pass or Fail indicator. The user can then review the image.

Project Outcome

The workbenches were delivered successfully on time and on budget. FCS engineers’ provided a series of training sessions on both the operation and maintenance of the workbenches which are now in use in the production environment.

Feedback from BAE is that the workbenches are achieving the aims initially set out at the start of the project. In addition the project has won a BAE Systems Innovation Award and been shortlisted for the Manufacturer MX Awards in the Smart Factory Category.

FCS continues to support the workbenches with the provision of 24/7 technical support.

Client Feedback

“It has been great to work with FCS to develop and productionise the collaborative benches. They have been able to deliver the project in a very short amount of time, whilst helping test the 3D Projection systems and integrate into a legacy configuration controlled system. Their commitment and passion for innovation greatly added to the outcome of the project.” Neelofar Ansari, Manufacturing Technology Engineer for BAE Systems

This a major achievement and a testament to the hard work and dedication shown between the two teams. The deployment of the collaborative workbench onto our current production line gives a clear signal of the benefits a number of integrated technologies can provide. This also offers a great opportunity in our strive to establish a manufacturing system capable of meeting the challenges of future aircraft

Andy Schofield, Manufacturing and Materials Technology Director for BAE Systems

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