Aerospace seniority

Posted on 14 Jun 2011 by The Manufacturer

Senior Aerospace BWT is a manufacturing firm rich in history and heritage that has been a part of the North West business landscape for 175 years.

For a sizable chunk of that time the company was known as Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor (BWT), before becoming a part of Senior PLC in 1999. Starting out in 1836 James William Baxter set up an agency dealing in cotton goods from his home at 69 Cannon St. in central Manchester. By 1876 the company was well established in a newly-built warehouse in George St, a developing area now part of Manchester’s ‘China Town’. James had now begun the process of adding value rather than merely selling cotton on.

In 1887 James retired and his brother Fredrick took over as MD with Robert Woodhouse investing in the business as a sleeping partner and John Crawshaw Taylor acting as secretary. From this point on the company was formally known as Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor or Baxter’s for short.

As time went on Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor began to develop their own products using the Falconia and Windak trademarks. Products such as silk blouses and shirts, gabardine cloth golf ware and sports jackets, waterproof clothing aimed at the expedition arenas as well as casual jackets for ladies fashion. The Windak ‘Safesleeper’ electric blanket was made for the domestic market right up until 1979.

As with many things, war time drove creative thinking and product creation like little else and Windak products were increasingly developed for the rather more specialised needs of the Air Ministry. As a result, many more doors opened where opportunity was ripe, setting the business on to the road that leads us to the current day.

The company eventually moved to Poynton in Cheshire after the Second World War and turned its attention to the manufacture of specialised equipment for the aviation industry. It became involved in developing items such as heated flying suits for high altitude flying and immersion suits for the crew of bomber planes; both required at the time by the Air Ministry. All this work in the aerospace world inevitably put Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor in a good position to take advantage of the future growth in passenger aircraft; which was to become a major part of their future.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the company began to use the knowledge it had gained from the clothing industry to develop insulation panels, electrical heater mats, lightweight tubing and other products for the aerospace industry. As the availability of air travel for all became a reality, Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor entered a new phase in its history and the production of garments ceased.

Since then the company has predominantly supplied the aircraft industry but has occasionally been involved in an array of one off specialist projects including things as diverse as medical, motorsport and Richard Branson’s hot air ballooning exploits.

One of their heated flying suits even made a cameo in one of the early Star Wars films and their pressure suits and helmets were actually worn under pressure by the actors in the H G Wells classic science fiction film ‘First Men in the Moon’.

Such a strong history of evolution and innovation has driven the current business and is part of the DNA of the place. Keeping the Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor name alive was seen as an important part of the transition to becoming Senior Aerospace BWT and it is easy to see why. The philosophy embraced in 1836 of adding value rather than straight forward buy and sell, is at the very heart of what Senior Aerospace BWT does today.

Test Rig Senior Aerospace BWTSenior Aerospace BWT
In 1996 Baxter Woodhouse & Taylor was sold to a venture capitalist company Cork Industries Ltd, bringing to an end the involvement of the Taylor family. In 1999 the firm was acquired by Senior plc, an international manufacturing group now with facilities in 11 countries, employing over 5,800 people across the world. From this point on they were known as Senior Aerospace BWT and in 2002 the company relocated to a purpose built facility in Aldington, Cheshire.

The main thrust of the business today is the design and manufacture of ultra-lightweight air conditioning ducting for Customers predominantly in the regional jet, business jet, helicopter & military aircraft markets. Their products distribute air around the interior of aircraft with mind bending complexity; keeping passengers and the crew comfortable whilst cooling important equipment such as avionics and computer systems.

The management of how the air arrives in the right places at the right pressure is anything but simple and requires the routing of rigid and flexible duct work to wind its way in and around pretty much every other component like wiring and hydraulics. Factor in the need for durability, flexibility and lightness and you can begin to get a grasp of just how tall an engineering order it is. Each individual part can be unique in size and shape which, from a manufacturing point of view, means literally thousands of different pieces, in fact 10,000 individual parts every month. To do all of this relies absolutely on the people on the factory floor’ so Senior Aerospace BWT is an almost entirely machine free zone. The complexity of the lay-up process used in the construction of components, added to the diverse nature of them is such that automation is virtually impossible.

Senior Aerospace BWT have a manufacturing process unique to them of using thermo-plastic rather than thermo-set technology to create a durable, flexible and light product and with the fire retardant properties inherent in the materials used, it makes them ideal for use in aerospace applications. The origins of the process can be traced back to a man by the name of Arthur Dudley, who pioneered a process now known as Plastics Dudley or PD, back in the 1950’s. Without Arthur Dudley’s PD process, Senior Aerospace BWT wouldn’t be the company it is today.

PD is a technique employing a sacrificial mould around which the layers of material that make up the components are laid and then impregnated with a thermoplastic.

The technique enables fast, cost effective and accurate production and allows different grades of material to be used to suit each product. Using the PD process, the weight saving and flexibility over other, more traditional methods is significant and it allows products of almost any complexity to be made easily.

One of the other ways Senior Aerospace BWT has retained its leadership position in the market is through partnerships with key supply chain companies. One such collaboration has been with Teledyne CML which specializes in high-quality precision machined products and the manufacture of complex composite assemblies.

Over the past several years Teledyne CML has worked with Senior Aerospace BWT on a number of major commercial and military aircraft programmes and both parties are currently in the middle of the design phase of another major project. This collaboration has not only helped Senior Aerospace retain its edge in the market but has also assisted it to provide more diversified product offerings.

Layup Training Senior Aerospace BWTLean Kaizen and focused improvement
The man management of how all of that is achieved is a celebration of the benefits of both Lean working and Kaizen improvement programs to get the workforce involved with improving the overall efficiency of the company, as well as ensuring the high quality of the end product. As with all good organisations, it is a constantly evolving process with the well being of its people at the very centre.

As an example, there is a lot of chemistry involved in the manufacturing process so good ventilation is vital. The local exhaust ventilation systems are continually audited and upgraded to ensure they keep the workplace well within exposure limits. Not only that, but employees themselves are actively involved in monitoring the systems.

It wasn’t always so and the introduction of Lean processes was a painful one at first. After a number of stalled attempts, with its introduction being met with cynicism from those at the coal face, the arrival of current CEO David Beavan some six and a half years ago set in motion a change in culture that would eventually see a shift in balance towards pro-Lean thinking among employees and build new foundations for the future.

Now the company use a three pronged approach to overall business improvement that is company-wide; Lean manufacturing, Kaizen ideas implementation and focused Improvement groups. All are designed to engender the involvement of all employees across the factory in delivering real business improvements.

Introduction of Lean
John Fleming was the man tasked with taking Lean across the entire workforce when he joined the company at the beginning of 2008 and his is a story of patient success. Working hand in hand with manufacturing director Simon Ashley, a program of Kaizen meetings and focus groups was implemented to encourage the cross pollination of ideas from department to department, something that had never been done before. It helped people to look outside their own areas and into those of others, giving them a much better understanding of how everything fitted.

The introduction of Lean practices became much easier when employees had the chance to be actively involved in planning and implementation. At least six Kaizen sessions are now scheduled every year, each aimed a improving a different area of the business meaning that regular time is dedicated to the well being of the whole business, something that David Bevan says would have been difficult to achieve without a structured approach to Lean. “The reluctance to release employees for up to four days to take part in a Kaizen workshop has long since passed now that the benefits are clear to everyone.” All that effort has brought rewards in efficiency as well as in employee morale.

Employees now feel involved in the business and are actively encouraged to come forward with ideas that are then properly investigated. The cynics are still there but John claims that 90% are now advocates of Lean practice. As John Fleming put it “100% of our employees are trained in Lean methodology and at least 50% of the workforce has now also been involved in a Kaizen event.” The work also continues outside of the factory with the Senior Aerospace BWT team actively helping suppliers to raise their game, a vital factor in driving the business forward.

Introducing new people
The Senior Aerospace BWT team have recognised the benefits a structured induction and training programme has on employee morale and retention.

Sally Kennedy, HR manager and her team have developed a structured process of bringing new people into the business that will quickly provide the skills necessary to work in this unique hands-on production environment.

These skills can only be gained through on the job training and Chris Mead and her dedicated team of trainers lead new employees through a five week programme in the training school, which forms part of a 13 week company induction program. However, in takes many years to gain all the skills required, so Chris’ team work tirelessly transferring their skills and knowledge.

The aerospace industry is as cyclical as any other and subject to the ravages of global economies so, as growth follows slow down, Senior Aerospace BWT are currently recruiting and have taken on 42 new starters already this year with at least as many again being sort. Great lengths are taken to ensure that new people not only have the aptitude and dexterity for the job, but also that they will be happy and comfortable in their new role before they even get to the interview stage. Sally explained that recent advertising resulted in an avalanche of applicants leaving a big task to whittle those down. To help an online initial application system is being created to streamline the whole process.

New things bring new problems
The driving philosophy behind Senior Aerospace BWT is one of adding value, a full service to their customers. From concept & modelling, detail system design, tool & fixture development, test & system balancing, certification and finally serial production. Head of engineering is Dave Dollan, a man with a life time of aircraft experience and a deep passion and pride for Senior Aerospace and its Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor heritage.

Keenly aware that the history and the future of the company are at stake Dave is determined that the company remains true to its roots in terms of quality and service. ”Senior Aerospace BWT is about offering a service rather than just a product.” The process of introducing new product into the business is key to delivering this service and in 2007 a focused improvement team was formed with the brief to develop a new product introduction process that would embrace design for manufacture. Mike Novak, head of product design and programme launch now leads a team of project managers, designers, toolmakers and product developers that ensure all aspects of the NPI process are followed and product is ready for handing over to Simon’s manufacturing team.

Cost control
Clearly you cannot have a lean production line without looking very closely at your purchasing. That falls to CFO Darren Butterworth and purchasing manager John Wilkins. Buying represents 30% of the cost base and Darren and his team continue to follow a stringent cost mitigation process that includes everything from introducing new processes, through re-sourcing and energy management within the plant.

This has included installing a voltage optimiser and smart lighting. Managing waste helps with cost reduction and overall efficiency and gains have often been found in the detail.

Senior Aerospace BwtERP and the future
The final piece of the puzzle is the introduction of a new ERP system. The current one is some 10 years old and a lot of functions happen outside of it meaning a number of job duplications.

Provider selection for the new system is in its final stages and Darren hopes that it will begin integration within six to eight weeks. That means it should be fully up to speed within 12 months and Darren is very keen that this time it will be as near to future proof as possible.

Mark Jenkins, commercial director, knows only too well that the industry has historically been cyclical with peaks and troughs occurring every 10 years or so, the most recent being post the 11th September 2011 tragedy and then the global economic crisis during 2008 and 2009. in addition to this the future is being shaped by the requirement for air travel to be cleaner and quieter for the environment and more efficient due to both depletion of natural resources and the increasing price of oil per barrel. For now the market recovery is set to continue and grow over the next few years the future looks bright.

With a customer base that is a who’s who of the aerospace world, Senior Aerospace BWT is a forward thinking, well managed company with good historical foundations. The biggest indicator of the quality of the company as a whole is its commitment to achieving world class levels in quality, cost and delivery by using a structured approach to improving its products, processes and its people. Furthermore the company’s commitment to the environment is demonstrated by its ISO 14001 accreditation and further commitment to achieving the OHSAS 18001 occupational health and safety management system standard in the next 12 months. Their philosophy is simply stated as “Quality products, on time at a profit.” It’s safe to say that the Baxter Woodhouse and Taylor founders would be proud of the business they created and happy that it is in safe hands, growing towards the future.