Military precision

Posted on 18 Apr 2008 by The Manufacturer

Clive Simmonds and Lee Penford of BAE Systems Rochester brief Debbie Giggle on a supplier development programme with a difference

Manufacturers often embark on collaborative projects with suppliers to reduce costs or streamline logistics. The supplier development initiative launched by BAE Systems Rochester, however, has different desired outcomes. While cost reductions over time would not be unwelcome, the overriding aim of the initiative is to drive up levels of quality and repeatability in the company’s precision critical environment.

The BAE Systems site at Rochester, Kent, is part of the Electronics and Integrated Solutions Operating Group and specialises in defence and commercial avionics. It supplies avionic displays, such as head-up, head-down and helmet-mounted displays, as well as mission computers, digital maps, flight controls and associated sub-systems.

Production trends here only move in one direction. Engineering has to be ever more precise. Tolerances tighten. Components are miniaturised. From a manufacturing viewpoint, the bar is raised higher and higher.

This brings a series of challenges for the aerospace supplier. BAE Systems Rochester decided, two and half years ago, to play a proactive part in assisting suppliers to meet its demanding requirements.

Clive Simmonds, manufacturing and supply chain engineering manager, explained: “We manufacture our own PCBs on site but our main operations are design, systems integration and test. The majority of components used in programmes (80 per cent to 90 per cent) are supplied, typically, by specialist businesses – many of which are single source worldwide.

“The realisation of the need to engage suppliers in our continuous improvement activity began to grow about five years ago, and in 2005 a board level decision was taken to establish a dedicated team. We had recently received a large contract for a particular product and performance during initial production had been below benchmark. Scaling up would necessitate tackling the root causes of problems more effectively.”

Lee Penford, head of procurement, continued: “Three manufacturing engineers and a team leader were assigned to the supplier quality team, which was later renamed the supplier development team – a more accurate description of the proactive nature of their role.”

Three suppliers were selected initially. Each was strategically important and had experienced difficulty in meeting BAE’s high standards with the required levels of repeatability. One dedicated manufacturing engineer from the supplier development team was assigned to each supplier.

“We began by asking ourselves what information we needed to know from our suppliers,” Simmonds explained. “We had extensive data but weren’t sure that we had the right metrics or that we were using the information effectively. Like much of the aerospace industry we have a failure reporting and corrective action system (FRACAS), but it was all a bit ‘open loop’.”

“We were measuring the number of rejects but had no way of anticipating problems before they happened,” agreed Penford. “And there was no way at that time of ranking the seriousness of a quality problem. We didn’t differentiate in the supplier’s quality metric whether the component caused a minor irritation or shut down production for a week. We needed a more intelligent method of quality scoring.”

The tool developed by the company monitors the supplier’s status against a range of criteria, for example, use of lean techniques, and performance within FRACAS. This status is expressed using a traffic light/colour code system. For lean implementation, for example, red would mean the supplier has no programme, while green would indicate that tools are in place. An additional colour (blue) indicates outstanding performance in an area. Expressed on a spreadsheet, the tool enables the entire performance of a supplier to be seen at a glance on a single sheet of A3.

“Suppliers aren’t judged against perhaps impossible 100 per cent targets,” explained Penford. “Instead we log improvement against the supplier’s performance at the outset. We want this to be seen as a journey.”

Supplier response was positive. Each was a supplier of over 25 years standing with whom BAE had a mature relationship. Involvement of the supplier development team was very hands on, such as running kaizen events or analysing suppliers’ data on their behalf. It even extended to ‘lifting and shifting’ to rearrange production flow lines and rewriting of manufacturing instructions. Behind the ‘front man’ there was significant back-up.

Each supplier was assigned a BAE board level sponsor tasked with removing any internal obstacles. The tool developed by BAE Systems also scores the level of involvement by the supplier’s senior management team, indicating that top level support is desired at the supplier’s own site. Supplier development team members also have back-up from individuals within BAE’s in-house procurement team.

“We were a bit impatient and expected things to happen more quickly than they did,” said Simmonds. “But gradually the ‘red’ items became ‘green’ and we saw quantifiable delivery and quality improvements. Seeing the success of the initial project, and finding our team members freed-up as a result, we are now rolling the initiative out across our supply base.”

He stresses that this is just the beginning. Focus on supplier development has given the site a deeper understanding of those factors within the design and manufacture of components with the greatest criticality. These CTQ (critical to quality) characteristics are now identified for key ‘drawn’ components to focus the supplier’s attention on the key 10 or 12 measurements essential to ensuring against problems on-site at BAE. A three-dimensional CAD model may include 1,500 separate measurements and, with such tight tolerances, the CTQ factors can mean the difference between acceptance and failure. Exact methods of measurement have also now been harmonised between customer and supplier, as it was found this was contributing to inconsistency in such precision-critical components.

Working in close collaboration with suppliers has also helped BAE Systems Rochester to understand how to be more effective as a customer. This feedback is informing the design phases of new programmes to improve future supply relationships.

“The defence industry has specific challenges around working in collaboration with and alongside suppliers on our site,” commented Penford. “These go beyond the usual issues of intellectual property and and confidentiality, to include aspects such as security clearance for data and other legal frameworks. But we have made steps forward and are starting to see the benefit.