Reaching for the skies: inside BAE Systems Rochester

Posted on 13 Oct 2023 by Joe Bush

BAE Systems designs, develops and manufactures some of the most advanced avionic equipment in the world for the commercial and military markets. The Manufacturer Editor Joe Bush visited the company’s Rochester site in Kent to find out more.

BAE Systems’ Electronic Systems sector site in Rochester, designs and produces commercial aircraft avionics for Boeing and Airbus, head-up displays for military aircraft, helmet mounted displays, such as Striker II, and the active inceptors for the F-35 Lightning and Gulfstream. There is also a busy aftermarket section of the business, and in recent years the site has expanded into maritime controls.

Rochester is also home to the Faraday Test Centre, a dedicated unit supplying world-class test support to projects and companies across the globe. The team delivers complex test programmes for internal and external customers covering commercial, military and aerospace requirements.

Electronic Systems at Rochester has developed some of the most important innovations across the aviation sector over the last 70 years. These have included the world’s first head-up display for the Blackburn Buccaneer, the first fly-by wire system for Boeing 777, and the first automatic flight control and fuel flow system for Concorde.

“Our technology has continued to evolve, and we’ve also developed the first ever fast jet active inceptor for F-35 and the first civil active inceptor for Gulfstream private jets,” said Lee Penford, Operations and Supply Chain Director at BAE Systems Rochester.

Industry trends

Despite being one of the largest employers in the area, BAE Systems has experienced an increase in competition for talent following the COVID-driven shift towards hybrid working. Catchment areas for employers have opened up and this has in turn presented BAE Systems with the challenge of balancing the need to support the shopfloor while providing some degree of flexibility to its engineering support staff.

“We also need to take into account the impact of hybrid working on team effectiveness and problem solving in what needs to be a highly collaborative environment,” added Lee. “This competition for talent has been compounded by the need to replace those who took the decision to retire early due to the pandemic. Add onto that inflation back at levels not seen for 30 years and overall, it has become a far more competitive jobs market.”

Although easing now, BAE Systems has also worked hard to mitigate the price and lead time volatility in the electronic components market over the past few years. Lee added that the company keep a watchful eye on particular component types and have had to extend lead time estimates to customers as a result. Some customers have got ahead of the game by placing orders for long lead components to hold in anticipation of future orders.

“The speed at which artificial intelligence (AI) is moving also needs attention,” he added. “We create huge amounts of data and if we can use AI to sift and analyse that raw data to better and more accurately predict outcomes, then we can reduce both risk and cost in our processes and products.”

BAE Systems run regular production and test technician training cohorts

Technology and processes

BAE Systems Rochester primarily performs final assembly, test and inspection of electro-mechanical and electro-optical avionic products. High product complexity and small batches result in a focus on hand skills for assembly with soldering and wiring performed to internationally recognised IPC-A-610 and IPC/WHMA-A-620 workmanship standards.

Beyond final assembly, BAE Systems Rochester has three surface mount technology production lines where automated equipment is used for the manufacture and verification of the circuit card assemblies that go into BAE System’s products. Testing and fault finding also represents a significant portion of manufacturing activities especially within the repairs business, where recent and legacy products across multiple platforms and OEMs are supported.

BAE System’s general manufacturing concept of operation is cell-based with a high proportion of material delivery and moves triggered by Kanban. Technicians work to electronic visual assembly instructions delivered to their workbench via a manufacturing execution system (MES). Each workbench utilises shadow boards to further enhance visual management.

Lee continued: “BAE Systems Rochester is undertaking a Digital Transformation (DTX) programme to integrate our Engineering Product Data Management tool with our MES and also to bring together a large number of smaller, poorly connected homegrown and off the shelf tools and databases.

“Once deployed, this digital backbone will provide a single source of truth and give a step change in efficiency through not having to manually maintain similar data across multiple systems. Our working practices and behaviours have already made the transition from ‘over the wall’ to ‘concurrent engineering’ but often our software and systems have not – the integrated systems established by our DTX programme will further increase collaboration through multiple functions being able to operate within a common toolset.”

The enhanced capabilities of these new tools have created the opportunity for BAE Systems to further integrate other systems and equipment to make more data readily available in real-time. Lee explained that the challenges that BAE Systems currently face are threefold:

  1. Current systems are complex and have grown organically over many years
  2. Enhanced cyber security requirements
  3. To ensure an affordable long-term software upgrade path BAE Systems must limit software customisation

“The complexity of our current systems requires us to clearly define our requirements (from both documented process and local knowledge) and work closely with the system implementer to ensure that the solution delivers a tool that will be considered fit for purpose by the end user,” added Lee.

“Our cyber requirements can further complicate implementation by adding connectivity restrictions. While all ultimately solvable, it requires alternative solutions to what may be well established approaches in other industries. This can also be at odds with our need to limit software customisation. Avoiding excessive customisation helps ensure that we have an upgrade path with the out of the box vendor solution rather than a highly customised unique system.”

Some compromises have to be made but it is increasingly recognised that it is a better long-term solution for BAE Systems to change its current ways of working to align with the capability of the off the shelf products, although considerable change management is required in the deployment to ensure the workforce is aligned with this journey.

Service and support throughout an asset’s lifecycle are also essential to delivering customers’ and end users’ safety and key operational capability requirements. Beyond this primary focus, enhancing the customer experience also creates future opportunities and routes to funding to improve the tools and infrastructure at BAE System’s disposal to support the product.

In addition, to meet contracted commitments, regular communication with customers and end users enables BAE Systems to address its priorities, identify product enhancement opportunities and develop bespoke support solutions that align to their asset availability requirements.

Challenges and opportunities

As already mentioned, the electronic components market has been subject to long lead times and price volatility in recent years. BAE Systems has managed this disruption through a combination of caution when committing to product lead times in customer contracts and discipline in maintaining component lead times in its systems.

On its major production programmes, BAE Systems took the decision to procure long lead components ahead of firm customer orders or in collaboration with customers, thus aiming to preserve a level of normal lead times at the point of the firm order. “This, alongside close alignment with our strategic distribution partners and aggregating our anticipated demand at the BAE Systems group level, has enabled us to mitigate any significant disruption to our commitments,” added Lee.

In terms of procurement, BAE System’s engineering team is working hard to ensure that new product designs are using preferred component databases or selecting alternatives which can minimise lead time risk.

While some of these issues appear to be easing, at least in terms of component lead times and the number of parts on allocation, BAE Systems is seeing a number of SMEs experiencing additional material and running costs (typically energy and salary increases) resulting in increased prices. Lee continued: “In these cases our procurement teams will always seek to understand what is driving the cost increase, and where it is fair and reasonable, offer a level of support. In some cases, we have been able to accommodate requests for increased pricing and in some we have pushed back.”

In terms of sustainability and the journey to net zero, energy saving fundamentals, such as turning off equipment and lights when not in use, are practiced throughout BAE System’s manufacturing processes where possible. One of the key challenges is the age of test equipment used to support the company’s legacy products. Many of these do not cope well with being powered down or following power on, require a long period of time to stabilise before they can be used to test product repeatedly.

“Our more recent test equipment designs are much more tolerant and allow the power to be turned off at the end of the test or shift,” said Lee. “Our Environmental Stress Screening facility also contains a large number of power hungry test chambers used to perform hot and cold temperature cycling of our products prior to release.”

Regular investment in this facility has allowed older and less energy efficient equipment to be phased out as well as replacing the refrigerants to conform with latest industry standards. BAE System’s greatest opportunity for a step change in energy efficiency comes from the proposed investment in a new purpose-built manufacturing facility. Advances in building materials and energy management systems will allow the new site to be designed with green credentials from day one.

Future strategy

BAE Systems is working towards a ‘SMARTER Future Factory’ with the following key drivers:

S – Standardisation
M – Manufacturing Data Analysis & Intelligence
A – Automation and Robotics
R – Reconfigurable and Flexible
T – Technology Interconnectivity
E – Environmental Compliance
R – Real-Time Visual Management

The future strategy for manufacturing is to transition into a new purpose-built, open plan manufacturing facility that will enable BAE’s vision of a digitally connected, easily re-configurable and a highly visual, lean workplace.

The strategy starts with a digital transformation to merge the numerous engineering and manufacturing tools into a common toolset operating in a shared digital environment for increased collaboration – essential for design and manufacture.

Within this new toolset, the increased capabilities of the future manufacturing execution system will enable further connectivity of manufacturing equipment, and by ensuring that the future factory is designed with this in mind, BAE Systems will have the required IT infrastructure built into the fabric of the building.

“Wired and wireless (5G, Wi-Fi, RFID) technologies will provide real-time data to allow the effective management of our resources and tracking of material and tooling,” added Lee.

“Increased use of digital signage will further support our manufacturing output by ensuring that all our employees are engaged with how our manufacturing processes are performing. While many of our manufacturing processes are inherently manual, opportunities to increase automation will be enabled by the open plan nature of the new manufacturing facility.”

Centralising currently dispersed manufacturing processes will create higher throughput and justify investment in automation alongside BAE System’s workforce to increase efficiency. This will allow technicians to focus on more rewarding and value adding manufacturing activities.

Advances in vision systems will also allow inspection activities to be increasingly automated. Material logistics is a further area where technology will enable efficiency improvements, while autonomous mobile robots are likely to play a role in transporting material and finished goods to locations throughout the factory. “Intelligent algorithms running within our material storage carousels will position our most frequently used parts to the front of the queue,” said Lee.

From a business perspective, the Rochester facility will continue to be a leading provider of military and commercial electronic systems across multiple domains (air, land and sea) to customers in both the UK and international markets.

The development of next generation high integrity control solutions will leverage digital transformation and model-based systems engineering (MBSE) advances and BAE System’s head up and head mounted display systems will utilise a new generation of digital display technologies.

Faraday Test Centre

BAE System’s Faraday Test Centre is a state-of-the-art environmental and electromagnetic testing facility, where a highly skilled team possess more than a century of experience, testing military and commercial products to the greatest extent within the aerospace, defence and technology industries. At the centre, BAE works closely with its US counterparts based at the Endicott, New York, Electromagnetic Compatibility Facility to share best practices and knowledge.

The centre’s extensive environmental and EMC testing capabilities allow BAE Systems to produce high-quality solutions that are critical for mission success and gives assurance to military and commercial customers of safe and reliable operation, even when equipment is exposed to extreme environmental and electromagnetic conditions.

BAE Systems
BAE Systems Rochester is home to the Faraday Test Centre, a dedicated unit supplying world-class test support to projects and companies across the globe

“My team tests a wide array of equipment, from flight control computers to head up displays, which sit in a pilot’s line of sight presenting critical, real-time flight information. They do this for both internal project teams and customers,” said Faraday Centre Manager, Paul Davison.

There are a variety of tests performed at BAE System’s Faraday Test Centre. These include:

Environmental testing: This ensures that customer equipment can withstand a variety of conditions. From extremes in temperature to altitude, precipitation, water pressure and more. This provides customers with the knowledge that products are robust, reliable and durable for the conditions in which they will be used.

Electromagnetic Compatibility Testing (EMC): EMC testing ensures that the operation of electronic equipment is not affected by, or accidentally affects, the simultaneous operation of other systems and equipment. An example of this is guaranteeing that critical electronic equipment is not impacted by high power radio transmitters, which may also be in use at the same time in close proximity.

Paul added: “Testing requirements are there to reflect the levels and stresses experienced on aircraft, so it’s only natural that as the capabilities of the aircraft increase, so do some of the test levels. Another big change is in the way we test; many years ago some tests would be completely manual, but we look for automation wherever we can to enable cost savings and repeatability.

“We can simulate how our customers’ equipment will perform in some of the harshest environments and extreme conditions. For example, our icing test, which we conduct in our freezing chamber, can go as low as -60°C – that’s equivalent to the lowest temperatures at the top of Mount Everest.

“The typical cruising altitude of a commercial airliner is 30,000-38,000ft. and a Eurofighter Typhoon can reach altitudes up to 55,000ft. Our maximum altitude test level is 70,000ft – that’s equivalent to reaching the stratosphere. The average fighter jet pulls 9g when accelerating; our centrifuge can test up to 30g. We can also test to underwater pressure up to 4.0 bar, which is equivalent to 40 metres underwater.”

BAE has an extensive UKAS accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025, covering standards such as MIL-STD-461, MILSTD- 810, MIL-STD-704, DEF STAN 59-411, DEF STAN 00-35, RTCA/DO-160, SPE-J- 000-E-1000 as well as many other test specifications.

The UKAS accreditation against ISO 17025 is for the General Requirements for Competency of Test Houses. This gives the company the confidence that it is performing to a high level when benchmarked against other test facilities. The auditing covers management and quality systems as well as EMC and environmental expertise.

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