Nuts and bolts might be the smallest components of an airplane engine, but they are what keep it together – and the required quantity is enormous. Before the COVID-19 pandemic diminished air traffic, the National Aerospace Fasteners Corporation (NAFCO) Taiwan produced over two million fasteners annually to keep commercial airplanes in the air.
Although a major blow to the industry, the pandemic provided a silver lining for NAFCO. As production slowed, the company doubled down on its efforts in innovation and quality enhancement, notes Alvin Lin, general manager of NAFCO. The company has upgraded its smart systems over the past three years to prepare for a faster and safer rebound in air travel.
“Our top priority is guaranteeing on-time delivery and full quality control,” says Lin. “It’s impossible to use manual inspection to guarantee that each one of our millions of fasteners is of optimal quality, which is why we’ve invested so much effort into our smart production systems.”
NAFCO started implementing Internet-of-Things (IoT) systems six years ago by connecting key processes to the central data management system, enabling the company to control and monitor its output second by second. NAFCO has since worked to optimize its utilization, analyze capacity, productivity, and plan production using the data from its machines. Today nearly all of its devices are connected to the central data management system, while key mechanisms are monitored and analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI).
“Upgrading our systems has made it possible for us to look inside the parts and better understand how we can improve the quality and productivity,” says Hope Tseng, who heads the company’s artificial intelligence and automation department. “Through analyzing data from our AIoT system, we can evaluate new process parameters and find issues that are invisible to the naked eye. In the past, we could only rely on fixed parameters like deformation and temperature to ensure quality. Now we can clearly see how different factors affect the entire process and adjust the necessary parameters.”
Apart from quality control, digitalization has helped NAFCO lower its production costs, increase its tool life spans, predict productivity, and focus on high-skill staffing. “No resource is more important than human resources, but there is a decreasing interest in working in manufacturing,” says Peter Lee, NAFCO vice president. “By automizing quality control, we can not only ensure safety, but we can also hire more engineers and developers while decreasing costs.”
The fact that everything is done in-house is what sets NAFCO apart from its competitors. Rather than outsourcing AI control and automation processes, the company has hired a team that develops and customizes its smart systems. Lin notes that Taiwan is an ideal location to customize smart production due to government support and the island’s many research and development centers.
“Besides automation, we need an in-depth understanding of how to analyze the data,” he adds. “The devil’s in the details – with quantifiable numbers, we can make subtle changes that lead to major improvements. That’s why it was important for us to develop everything in-house, including the manufacturing and fine-tuning of the machine to the specific product characteristics. We’re not just trying to make the product faster – we need to make sure it is safe to use every time.”
Through large amounts of data calculations, real-time monitoring, and a strengthened quality management system, the company plans to keep raising industry standards while reducing production costs. These efforts have not gone unnoticed by NAFCO’s global customers – as air travel picked up again this year, demand for the company’s products has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“Our customers feel a heightened sense of trust toward our products,” says Lee. “Our strategy is very obvious to them – by focusing on smart production systems, we’ve managed to visualize our products in a way that helps us communicate with customers in a more efficient, professional, and technical manner so that everyone understands the optimal use of the fasteners. That’s why it’s important that we continue developing this technology to help our customers develop new products and use them in the most optimal way.”