Lean, mean flying machines

Posted on 16 Feb 2009 by The Manufacturer

Mark Young explores the lean set-up at BAE Systems’ manufacturing site in Samlesbury to see what efficiency weaponry the defence giants are employing at the plant

BAE Systems – requiring no introduction but receiving one nonetheless – is the third largest defence company in the world, recording worldwide sales in 2007 of £15.7 bn. It employs almost 100,000 people and spends £1.4bn per year on research and development. It lists six regions as its home markets – Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sweden, the UK and the US.

BAE means big business. Its vision is to be the best airframe design and manufacturing business in the world. So, like the majority of manufacturers — large and small, from corporations with billion-pound profits to one-man operations — BAE has committed to making its production more efficient through lean techniques.

“Lean is a commitment to reassess what we do across all functions, and with our partners, to take out steps, time and cost. This approach is crucial to deliver our strategy,” says Greg White, vice president of finance for BAE’s electronics and integrated solutions.

What efficiency initiatives has the aerospace company undertaken? A factory in Lancashire, one of eight that BAE operates in the UK, has been picked for some lean inspection.

The plant in Samlesbury, near Preston, employs 4,500 staff and the company carries out airframe manufacture and design and provides in-service aircraft support. It produces fuselage and other military parts for a number of aircraft including the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and is also a leading supplier to Airbus.

At Samlesbury, BAE employs a variant of the tried and tested QDCM (Quality, Delivery, Cost and Morale) model. Included in that, BAE operate SQCDP — Safety, Quality, Cost, Delivery and People – part of what it calls its “Blue Sky Vision”.

BAE has incorporated elements of 5S in its working routines at Samlesbury to provide regularity to its operations. Under the principle of set-in-order (seiton in the original Japanese principles), a standard diary is used for “short, high energy meetings focused on decision making”. Examples include a weekly SQCDP performance review which runs Monday mornings from 10am to 11am and a fortnightly continuous improvement plan, review and decision-making meeting which is scheduled for every other Wednesday from 10am until midday.

By scheduling the meetings, less time is spent arranging and communicating them while misunderstandings of time or date are avoided by consistency. This allows the team to spend 90% of their time on production or other efforts by meeting collectively for only 19 hours out of 200 each month.

This is followed by more 5S in order to solve what was identified as Samlesbury’s biggest problem – integrating a model line production concept to streamline manufacturing. Implementing the system was particularly risky, with “failure not being an option”. Therefore, a full artillery of lean weapons was needed from ‘planning to application’ to ‘continuing production’.

Since integrating the ‘good housekeeping system’ thoughout, which, along with 5S, employed value stream mapping, master scheduling, statistical process control, and visual factory methods – all supported by a DSUM (data summary) process of raising awareness of issues – the model-line has yielded results. Production rate has doubled, scrap materials have improved by 20% and the Typhoon delivery rate now stands at 100%.

In an area that has led to the demise of many lean practitioners before it, BAE has recognised engagement as a key principle in the fight for efficiency through change. Creating a lean culture throughout the company was essential as, without it, other devices in its name will be doomed to fail. Lean facilities will not produce results without lean culture, but some elements of lean culture can improve efficiency without the lean facilities. This is part of BAE’s ‘people emphasis’ — decisions made at the top must be communicated through the ranks. There is an open dialogue on the change process which seeks the opinions and expertise of the staff and every member is kept up to date at each stage of decision making and progress.

In addition, communications at BAE are consistent. One message from a single, united voice provides clarity and confidence. Familiarity is a rhetoric device through which workers build trust in a continuous objective. Staff are given goals, the presentation of which they expect and the formulation of which they have interacted with. They are valued and involved and are empathetic of the cause. Thus they are more productive; there has been a 22% improvement in BAE Samlesbury’s Employee Opinion Survey scores since 2004.

One way to improve the efficiency of production was to find ways to cut the number of processes involved. Labour intensive fabrications — the term applied to a process the main cost of which is that of the staff required — have made way for single-piece machined parts. The plant uses superplastic-formed titanium for plane fuselage which means it can be made from one piece of material and in one single process. This means machining and assembly operations are restricted to a minimum and production time is shortened. As the number of processes is lowered, so are the chances of a defect. Superplastic-formed titanium weighs less too — the Typhoon airframe using this material is 40% lighter than that of the Tornado.

For Airbus operations, Samlesbury has improved parts quality by reducing errors by 90%; from 10,000 parts-per-minute faults to less than 1,000. In addition, Airbus process costs have been reduced by five per cent, year-on-year.

Overall, the fruits of the labour are sweet — since 2004, BAE has seen real improvements across all areas of SQCDP. Safety measures have resulted in 45% less accidents, while quality is up, with a 30% improvement in scrap and concessions. There has been a 25% reduction in non-labour costs and a 19% rise in productivity for delivery. The 22% improvement in Employee Opinion Survey scores completes the set with the people element.

But BAE says that after three years of operations at the site, Samlesbury is “still in the foothills” in terms of possible efficiency. There is a lot of potential, the company says, to make productivity sleeker, smoother and more effective. That is why the company will continue to invest in the development of lean and continuous improvement. It will continue to labour towards optimum efficiency until one day it can adapt one of its oft-employed maxims: “While changing the culture changes business performance,” it preaches; “maintaining the culture maintains business performance” is what it is no doubt attempting to reach.