High-tech hidden in the hills

Posted on 10 Dec 2009 by The Manufacturer

High technology design and manufacturing is very much alive and well in the UK and is often found in surprising places. None more so than in the Lancashire hills, home to Aircelle Burnley, a cutting edge, world leading aerospace company that has recently undergone a major growth and management restructure which has further strengthened its place on the global manufacturing flightpath.

Nestling in a natural three forked valley formed by the Brun and Calder rivers, the old mill town of Burnley deep in the industrial heart of Lancashire is not, on the face of it, the first place that you would expect to find world class aerospace manufacturing. In actual fact, Northwest England is seen as the premier aerospace cluster in the UK and, according to the North West Aerospace Alliance, plays a pivotal role in the UK’s aerospace sector, employing more skilled people than any other region. Legend has it that the location of the site is as a result of the fact this part of the country could not be reached by any enemy bomber during the Second World War.

Carrying on the Tradition
One of the biggest players occupies one of the old Lucas manufacturing sites in Burnley and is the only UK base of French firm Aircelle, part of the giant SAFRAN conglomerate. It is from here that Aircelle design and manufacture jet engine nacelles, essentially the structure around a jet engine, which also provides the reverse thrust mechanism. They do so for aircraft of all sizes from business jets to the enormous double decked A380. Aircelle Burnley has established itself in the hearts and minds of the surrounding population winning awards for its work and involvement with schools and its investment in local people. At the same time, it has become a major force on a global scale with huge investment in process, infrastructure and technology.

Aircelle Burnley is continuing a tradition of aerospace design and build in the area that has been around since 1940. They are also the largest private sector employer in Burnley. Despite that, four short years ago even the people of the town hardly knew who Aircelle were. Being situated on an old Lucas manufacturing site, Aircelle seemed to have fallen off the radar. That was before the visionary influence of the man now at the helm, Managing Director Andrew White.

“When I first came here in 2005, I went along with a couple of colleagues to the Burnley Business Awards evening” said Andrew. “People would ask where we worked and we’d say, ‘Aircelle’ to which the usual response was ‘who are they’?” Since then thanks to the hard work and dedication of the team that Andrew has built, Aircelle in Burnley has won Lancashire Business of the Year 2008 and Burnley Business of the Year 2009 in recognition of the company’s contribution to the local area and the substantial investment made in its workforce.

New Line Up, New Future
When Andrew White joined the business in 2005, he brought with him substantial experience of the aerospace industry having spent most of his early working life in the sector. However it was experience of another industry which has been the inspiration for his work at Burnley. Andrew spent 7 years in the field of medical equipment manufacture with global giants Johnson and Johnson and it was there that he learned about cutting edge, high tech manufacturing and how to structure a business and the skills and the culture needed to get the best out of all the elements at your disposal. He had a vision for Aircelle Burnley and the talent lies in implementing it. From that point alone, Andrew is clearly highly skilled. The ability to see and read the bigger picture is essential and he has a refreshing outlook. Andrew also recognises that great leaders need to be able to maximise the potential contribution of every one of their people. Andrew focused his team to ensure everyone played their part in the rejuvenation of Aircelle Ltd.

“We are looking at carefully selecting the work that we take on here so that expansion complements the work that we already do. That means largely working with composite technology in keeping with the technology and skill investments we have made and for which we are known”.

The management team that Andrew has built is almost entirely new, made up of a mix of internal promotions and external recruitment. Experience of industry outside of aerospace taught him the value that the knowledge of other sectors can bring.

“The management people who are new to the business are here because of their specialist skills and knowledge.

These people have complimented our existing skills and created a team with impressive capability.

Let the people lead the way Andrew recognised early on that there was an imbalance between those who had very high, technical capability and those with the leadership qualities needed to engage and harness the people potential. It was critical that Aircelle had strong leaders who could role model the right ways of working and develop high performing teams within their technical specialisms but also develop a broader business mind set capable of seizing and developing new business opportunities. A plan was developed to identify those already within the business who had leadership potential that could be developed and then, where that was not possible, to bring in people from outside who already had that ability to lead. The management team before the Andrew White era had served the business well enough but lacked the strategic thinking needed to drive Aircelle into the future, especially as output grew.

What they have done at Aircelle is move from a very traditional, skill based training format which tended to focus on core capability, be it engineering or operations, to a more modern approach with far greater emphasis on values and behaviour and developing sustainability among the work force.

“When I first joined we had quite a high attrition rate for new starters. People would come in and be put off by the very traditional feel and set up” said Andrew. “It has taken a while to implement but the focus now is on involving our people to maximise their contribution to our success.” The HR Team have been responsible for steering the culture shift headed up by HR Director Helen Gopsill.

Helen joined the team two years ago from a background in Retail Distribution. During this time the team have worked hard at creating a working environment in which individuals can thrive.

“We looked at the existing training programmes right the way through the business and quickly decided on necessary changes.” Said Helen. “We had a problem with sourcing core skills so we decided to re-introduce apprenticeships and introduce a lot of Vocational Training through the NVQ route. We have even developed a number of our own NVQ programmes that have been taken up by local training organisations.” The plan is to create a learning culture within the business and Helen, along with operations director Darren Mitcheson, are passionate about seeing it happen. They are in an enviable position as being part of a conglomerate like SAFRAN which means that funding for justified projects is available but they are also free to design and implement their own strategy and retain a certain autonomy.

“People work here a long time and we have an immense amount of knowledge and experience that has not been unlocked effectively in the past” said Darren. “We are changing mindsets and encouraging people to have those ideas and bring them to life. If we get just one great idea from each person per year, that is a lot of positive, hard won knowledge that we can harness.”

Outside the factory gate
One of the biggest focal points for Helen has been the local community. Aircelle are part of the Business in the Community initiative aimed at forging closer relationships with the town folk of Burnley by adopting a holistic approach to health and wellbeing for the workforce and their families, engaging local groups and organisations as well as taking an active role in economic development. The result has been incredible with 100 speculative approaches for work per month not being unusual, along with external award recognition and a sense of immense pride from the employee population.

In March this year Aircelle carried out their first Great Place To Work survey during which 50% of employees were questioned on all areas of their working life. That 83% said that they were proud to tell other people where they worked and had a sense of pride in the business speaks volumes.

Streamlining supply
At Aircelle Burnley, 70% of turnover is externally sourced meaning that efficiency gains in supply chain logistics is a major focus for the company.

Aircelle has seen production of its key products, the thrust reverser on the Airbus A330 engines, more than treble from 40 units per year to 140.

While nowhere near automotive output, it represents a major operation in aerospace terms where complexity is much greater and industry compliance is necessarily very high. The man tasked with the job of streamlining this aspect of the Burnley operation is Adrian Banks, Supply Chain Director.

Adrian is the newest member of Andrew White’s new team, having only been with Aircelle since February.

Recruited from the automotive world where finely tuned, slick supply chains are absolutely vital to operations, Adrian has a good idea of the challenges ahead and following Andrew White’s remit, is determined to work hard and closely with all suppliers.

“We have to be more demanding of suppliers in order to move forward.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link” said Adrian The plan is to design and implement a comprehensive supply measurement system whereby every quarter, all suppliers will be given feedback on their performance and a ranking; the aim being to help those suppliers to grow their businesses with the help and guidance of Aircelle.

What will result from this will be a number of frontline, world leading manufacturers whose businesses have been directly enhanced by the Aircelle Burnley connection. By being a tier two or three supplier to a growing global player is going to be hard but rewarding work for those up for the challenge.

Adrian is also continuing the further integration of the lean processes which have begun to work well at Burnley and to further reduce the amount of ‘parts tourism’ where components arrive at the factory and then leave again for more work such as painting before reappearing again for assembly.

“We are also working hard to meet our environmental obligations for example increasing re-usable packaging. We have established an employee working group who focus on recycling within the factory and we now recycle 90% of our waste.” Andrew White firmly believes that all of the suppliers can be sourced from within the UK and often from the North West. “The low cost economy route has been looked at in great depth but by working hard with all of our suppliers to help them to grow and improve their products and operations we can easily compete. The logistics of dealing with somebody who is an hour down the road rather a day away by plane is blindingly obvious” said Andrew.

Maximizing operations
At the heart of all the changes within Aircelle Burnley is Operations Director Darren Mitcheson. Darren is the only one of the members of Andrew White’s team who is Burnley-born and bred and has been working within the site for the last ten years. A man fiercely passionate about the company and its people and justifiably proud not only of the technical skill brought to bare but also of the actual individuals that make up the whole. He has seen big changes under the current leadership and is revelling in the effect it has had on the workforce. Being a part of all that clearly drives Darren, as he speaks from the heart and with utter conviction.

“We have seen investment in cutting edge technology and the skills needed to use it in a way that makes us here at Burnley a truly world class company“said Darren. “One major customer who has visited us compared us with over 60 primary suppliers in our field. They told us that on all levels – cleanliness, ability and organisationally – we are 1 or 2 in the world at what we do. That pleases me”.

Darren has overseen a doubling of the factory floor space in just 18 months and the ramping up of first class composite design and manufacture required by primary customers such as Airbus. The installation of laser cutting tools, presses and autoclaves, plus new production line streamlining techniques fit well with the ongoing supply chain efficiency gains as part of the overall growth and sustainability of the company.

The right path
“We’ve come a long way but we are not there yet, we are on a path.

The biggest change in the business has been the recognition of the role our people play in our success.

That wasn’t there before” concluded Andrew.

Heading into the future, Andrew White is focused on winning the right contracts which are natural progressions of current capabilities that means high tech, high quality composite work leading to full system integration there are plans to overhaul all the current Information Technology Systems and introduce SAP within the operation, which is group led and will happen soon.

Aircelle Burnley has a bright, prosperous future ahead of it with a very bright, capable and dedicated management team at the helm and some fantastic plans outside of the immediate workplace which will ensure both sustainability and position as a global force.