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Lev Feigin25 Sep, 2019

Unmanned: how General Atomics uses PI Vision to automate the manufacture of warplanes

Costs down. Efficiency up.

These are the main drivers behind gathering and leveraging operational data in the manufacturing sector. But Big Data alone does not magically surface efficiency-driving insights. To unleash the full potential of sensor data, manufacturers need a visualization tool uniquely designed for operational intelligence: a tool that can help them glean value-rich, actionable discoveries among a sea of data.

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For Russell Manson, the Integration Automation Architect at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, that tool is OSIsoft's PI Vision. His company, a division of General Atomics, is a major Department of Defense contractor that makes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the futuristic Predator, a remote piloted plane that has made headlines during U.S. military deployments.

“There is no hiding. Let me tell you,” said Manson about the ultra high-tech aircraft that has proven to be a deadly automated combatant of the United States Air Force.

The unmanned aircraft are made at General Atomics' manufacturing facility in Poway, California, where the company also produces radars, ground control systems, and electro-optic solutions. But with such diversity of business activities, the manufacturer was facing several data-related challenges. Sharing information and data between business units was proving unduly difficult and operational data could take hours to retrieve.


Image courtesy of General Atomics

To address these challenges, General Atomics formed an internal team called the Manufacturing Center for Continuous Improvement (MCCI).  After adopting the PI System to collect and analyze operational data, Manson and his MCCI team quickly adopted PI Vision - OSIsoft's easy to use, self-service, scalable visualization tool. The team soon found that they could harvest, display, and share data in a simple, intuitive way and quickly rolled out PI Vision displays for aircraft painting operations.   

General Atomics paints its planes in four paint booths. Spraying can only occur when the conditions inside the booths are within a narrow temperature and humidity range. Before PI Vision, that crucial information was only available on hard-to-read display boxes, hidden on the sides of the booths. Manson thought there must be a way to make this information more readily available. The MCCI team outfitted each spray booth with temperature probes and humidity sensors whose signals are sent to the PI System. They also attached 55” monitors to the outside of each booth with simple PI Vision displays for visualizing PI System data. 

With PI Vision, information about booth conditions can be collected across time and compared to coating quality standards to ensure standards are being met. The displays provide immediate visual feedback about booth conditions, allowing operators to spray sooner, which increases production speed.

The PI Vision feature that Manson's team relies on the most is called a multi-state. The multi-state behavior allows them to transform any symbol on the display into a visual alarm.  You can assign specific colors to ranges of data values. When the data value of a multi-state symbol enters the assigned range, its color changes to indicate a different state.

The multi-state capability was just what Manson's team needed. By assigning specific colors to temperature and humidity value ranges inside the booths, engineers can now quickly see if the conditions are right for spraying.

With these displays delivering real-time visual feedback, booth operators can easily read the status of each booth based on their color - even from across the room! 


General Atomics uses PI Vision displays with multi-state functionality to help monitor operating conditions in its aircraft paint booths. 

Employees from other General Atomics organizations have noticed the new PI Vision displays and were impressed. “These people said, 'Wow, what are you guys doing here? We want that!'” Manson said. “So this project has generated a list of opportunities. We're starting initiatives around machine connectivity, data collection from all of our shop floor machines, and the various communication protocols.”

Learn more about PI Vision's multi-state behaviors: 

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Lev FeiginDigital Campaign ManagerLev Feigin is the Digital Campaign Manager at OSIsoft and has been with the company for over 5 years.
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