Rocket men

Posted on 9 Apr 2011 by The Manufacturer

Missile maker MBDA, with a £3bn turnover, is unique in Europe in serving global armed forces in the air, at sea and on the ground. Its UK production facility in Bolton, North West England is a model for advanced manufacturing. Mark Young explores the firm’s holistic approach to world class manufacturing through its product development, employee engagement and lean focus.

MBDA at a glance

History The company’s roots go back to the early 1900s. Missile manufacturing roots back to 1950.
Sector Missiles for armed forces across land, sea and air
Employees c10,000 globally
Turnover c£3bn pa
Based Sites across Europe including three major sites in Britain. Main UK production site in Lostock, Bolton.

In the disposable age we live in there are many things that are utilised only once. There are cameras, razor blades, contact lenses, newspapers, plastic bottles, fireworks and a plethora of items besides which are manufactured for one single use.

These things are all inexpensive, though; none of them cost a six figure sum per unit. But a missile can.

And, unlike those other disposable items now so ingratiated into society, there’s an awful lot of work that goes into creating a missile; it’s almost a surprise that employees at producer MBDA don’t reserve some underlying frustration that the items they put so much time and effort into artfully piecing together ultimately end up being blown to smithereens.

Seemingly unfazed, though, MBDA is one of the most technically advanced and well equipped missile suppliers in the world, producing over 4,000 missiles per year. It is the first fully integrated European defence group and its ability to serve armed forces across air, ground and sea gives it a unique capability across the continent. With revenues approaching €3bn per annum it is also the largest European company in its sector by turnover. The company maintains whole product lifecycle involvement with an “end to end” capability, providing through-life servicing of the missiles with full sovereign control.

MBDA as a company is an amalgamation of some of Europe’s most high profile and advanced missile providers.

Its current incarnation is the result of a 2001 merger which brought Matra BAe Dynamics (itself a merger of the UK’s BAe Dynamics and France’s Matra Defense established back in 1996), together with EADS Aerospatiale Matra Missiles and the missiles systems activities of Alenia Marconi Systems (comprising what was formerly GEC in the UK and Alenia Difesa of Italy). EADS-LFK of Germany was added to the group in 2006. The company now has three major shareholders: BAE Systems and EADS, which hold 37.5 per cent of the company apiece, and Finmeccanica, with the remaining 25 per cent.

Says Bernie Waldron MBE, MBDA UK director of manufacturing: “We are in a better position today, more than ever before, to deliver the synergies from harnessing the collective knowledge and expertise of our company for the benefit of our domestic and export customers.” The company employs just shy of 10,000 people worldwide, including 2,500 permanent employees in Britain across three primary sites. The main UK production site is in Lostock, Bolton. With 275 permanent employees and a further 60 temporary contractors, this site acts as the manufacturing authority for all MBDA UK deliverables, encompassing activities both across the UK sites and also in export countries where local facilities have been established to satisfy contractual offset requirements. Inert missiles and sub-systems are assembled here with further production facilities for electronic circuit card and cable-form assembly, together with a full complement of environmental testing facilities and back office support functions.

Other UK sites include Stevenage, where the main research and development takes place including demonstrator and trials weapons assembly and test. Nearby, live weapons integration for both development and production takes place on the Henlow site which is registered to handle explosives up to 67 tonnes of explosives at any one time. Finally, in Bristol the company has a software development and systems engineering site. The company retains an office in central London, close to the Ministry of Defence.

Top of the range
Over the 50 odd years since the company first began missile manufacture it has continually provided armed forces with the latest in innovative missile technology.

Among a product portfolio of some 45 equipments, defence industry enthusiasts will recognise the Storm Shadow, ASRAAM and Rapier programmes as some of the most far reaching and advanced missile systems currently in global operation.

Today, the company continues to break new ground by addressing manufacturing architecture and ‘producibility’, i.e. design for optimised manufacture, assembly, integration and test and support. This is aided by a concurrent product and process development strategy which involves the detailed design of a manufacturing solution for each process. This is a process of mutual influence by which a proven manufacturing capability can be demonstrated and realised, in parallel with a maturing product design and targets “whole-life” cost optimisation.

Significant consideration is given, as early as possible to issues such as targets and constraints on the product, process and test equipment, demonstrable and qualified manufacturing and test processes, effective use of factory control systems like the MRP system, the just-in-time material supply system and preventative maintenance and calibration programmes.

The company is also developing a leading edge new Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) called Meteor. Meteor is being developed in partnership with five other countries – Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Sweden. It is to be used with the Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon jets, and will have three times the ‘no escape zone’ of any other air to air missile currently in use in the world. With its radio frequency seeker it will be able to lock on to and hit sophisticated enemy warplanes before the host plane is even in sight of its adversary.

Another innovation is the Dual Mode Brimstone (DMB) missile which was a response to a RAF Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). The missile uses both Radio Frequency and Semi-Active Laser guidance which gives the pilot the flexibility to engage either a moving or a fixed target. MBDA won a BAE Systems Chairman’s Innovation Award in 2010 for the dual seeker system. It was one of only two gold award winners out of 4,000 nominations and Dual Mode Brimstone is currently being successfully used in combat operations by the RAF in Afghanistan and Libya. According to RAF Wing Commander Ian Gale, who was previously Officer Commanding 31 Squadron, “DMB is probably the best moving target weapon out there at the moment”.

Key product developments

1957: Firestreak enters service with the RAF & Fleet Air Arm – “The first effective British Air to Air Weapon”
1971: Rapier enters service and after almost 35 years as the primary UK air defence system it is expected to continue serve in this role until 2020
2010: Dual Mode Brimstone rapidly developed and deployed in Afghanistan offering lethal “anti-insurgency” capability against moving and static targets with low collateral impact

Model manufacturer
Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable called for manufacturing companies to open their doors for a week and let the public look around. The idea is to dispel the common misconception of manufacturing as an industry consisting of tedious manual labour in dark and dirty Dickensian workhouses. While open access to the site for any old Tom, Dick or Harry might not be feasible for MBDA, given its line of work, the Lostock site would fit Messrs. Clegg and Cable’s purpose perfectly, in aesthetic terms.

This is largely down to the firm’s recent site-wide 5S programme – the latest in a long line of far reaching lean programmes which dates back to the early 1990s when MBDA became one of the first proponents of the Kawasaki Manufacturing System in the UK.

Clean as a whistle throughout, the site resembles something more like a science laboratory than a traditional manufacturing base. Each area in the factory has been reorganised to achieve maximum space efficiency and each area is clearly designated and marked for an individual process. The engineers around the site adorn shirt and tie underneath their static-fee coats.

The company’s lean activities have been centred on fast, flexible flow; inventory reduction; employee empowerment; improved operator skills breadth and flexibility and waste elimination, to achieve world class just-in-time production. All around the factory, flexible fixtures are used so that one item of work-in-progress can be quickly swapped for another and the machinery needed to work on it can be quickly and easily calibrated for the job in hand. For many processes, such as the cable production, standardised step-by-step engineering guides and shadow boards of the entire product assembly are used to ensure reproducibility. It also carries out rigorous self-certification of its products and processes for its own peace of mind that the very best standards of quality are adhered to.

Dave Ward, head of manufacturing, operations management and technical support, says, “We continually strive to improve, but one of our best efficiency breakthroughs has been the focus on waste elimination in all its forms, from the strategic value and use of industrial space to simply tidying the workbench. This is a vital cultural foundation for improved leanness and agility.” The same kind of attention is applied to supply chain management. The Lostock site received 9000 batches through goods-in last year from around 300 suppliers – it’s essential, therefore, that it carries out rigorous performance testing on its suppliers to ensure they are fit for purpose.

The company rates each of the components it sources as either ‘critical’, ‘key’ or ‘standard’ by weighing up the impact on the business of each component against the supply market complexity. This scoring system then determines the level of support and interaction MBDA needs to engage in with each supplier.

It then rates each supplier into one of four categories: ‘Partner’ – to be formulated to deliver a specific MBDA need; ‘Preferred’ – “best in class” suppliers with whom MBDA should prefer to do business; ‘Conventional’ – those delivering an acceptable level of performance; and ‘Undesirable’ – to be excluded from future work where possible. For the suppliers it wants – or needs – to continue working with, the company carries out quality assurance surveillance plans and works with the supplier to ensure items are optimally designed to feed in to the MBDA production systems.

MBDA is also working with 15 suppliers as part of the Supply Chain for the 21st Century (SC21) aerospace standard and has helped two suppliers achieve the bronze award in the last 18 months.

A well oiled machine
Another key element of MBDA’s performance strategy is to invest in the latest equipment in order to ensure that it remains at the top of its game.

This is prevalent all the way throughout the business including the electronics department. The company has spent £150,000 on a new soldering machine from ERSA – part of the German Kurtz Group. The aerospace industry calls for a minimum 75% solder fill; the ERSA machine fills 100 per cent every time.

The real innovation here, though, lays elsewhere. To ensure a printed circuit board is not compromised under the heat of the soldering iron it needs to be gently warmed to around 130 degrees Celsius in preparation. Usually, a soldering machine passes a board through to a separate chamber where the board is moved on a two axis bracket around the soldering point. However, the ERSA machine is the first of its kind where the soldering nozzle moves, instead of the board. This creates enough space in the machine to install a localised heating system which can keep the board at the exact temperature which it entered at. This would not have been previously possible and, hence, some cooling of the boards would have occurred which left it susceptible to soldering defects.

In fact, the root cause of 65% of the defects in electrical systems can be traced back to the stage where solder paste is applied to the board. To alleviate this problem, MBDA invested in a grid-lock holding system which grips the board to be populated securely and prevents solder paste deposition defects occurring. It aligns 0.15 mm thick stainless steel stencils on two axes instead of one. Further updates to the component placing machine mean that it can now place 6,000 items per hour and the change over time has been shortened from a day to two hours. “This is essential for us,” says head of sub-systems manufacturing, Ron White, “as often, when we’re making prototypes and demonstrator hardware, we will be looking to rapidly produce low numbers or even just one board type at a time.” As technologies evolve and products become increasingly complex, more and more components have to be accommodated on both sides of a modern PCB. One way the industry has become more space efficient is to change component interfaces from side “leadouts” to leadless devices (e.g. BGAs) with connections underneath the chip body. This, in conjunction with an increasing number of board layers and the attainment of IPC class 3 industry standards has led to MBDA investing a further £120,000 in an X-Ray facility in order to achieve full board internal inspection capability.

However, as well as these state of the art equipments, MBDA has to keep some machinery running which has been in place for over 30 years in order to service its back catalogue of products. This includes the System 8 test equipment which performs functional testing of sub-systems on the Sea Skua missile. “We need to pay special attention to this equipment to ensure its continuity of operation,” says Bernie Waldron. “The technology is old now and, given where we are in the product lifecycle, we always need to ensure we employ the most cost effective maintenance solution, which may mean we need to keep it continuously in a state of readiness.” Elsewhere, the site also features a full complement of environmental testing facilities, which are deployed at three separate stages of a test regime designed to reveal and eliminate nascent design and latent manufacturing faults and ensure product reliability. First the electronics boards are subjected to thermal stress. There is then a separate testing facility where the completed subsystems containing the same boards – seekers, for example – are subjected to hot and cold temperatures combined with a range of vibrational stress. This uniquely tests the part, not only at the temperature extremes but also during the transition “ramp” in between. Finally, the complete missile is placed in a simulation bay which includes targeting facilities, tricking the missile into thinking that it is on a real operational sortie to ensure that it reacts representatively whilst exposed to a similar range of extreme and changing environmental factors. As the product design matures, and faults become fewer, this rigorous test regime can be tempered as appropriate.

Throughout – and as you would expect – MBDA is committed to providing value for money for its customer; essentially, this is the tax payer. An example of this is the new final test facility for the Meteor missile. Instead of procuring a whole new system at a cost of around half a million pounds, MBDA adapted one of its existing testing bays for the ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile) missile to generate an overall saving of over £100,000.

“We are always sensitive to the need to demonstrate value for money for both the MoD and, of course, for the taxpayer. We understand and we know that key to achieving this is within a true open partnership with our customer”, says Bernie.

Shooting stars
The average worker’s length of service at the Lostock site is 25 years – this should tell you a thing or two about the way the company treats its employees. The company is committed to personal and professional development and has made it a priority to train its employees to accredited levels in multiple functions across the business in order to utilise them as needed. Each operator has now been issued a certificate which lists their approved skills and competencies so that the right person can be selected for any particular task and the system can quickly verify that that person was qualified to carry out the work. It also promotes adult apprenticeships to encourage employees to extend their skill base and has three on the books at the moment, one of whom has worked for the company for 20 years already.

The company engenders a culture of process ownership, both in continuous improvement and innovation, and many of the process and machinery improvements are a result of employee recommendations to improve the processes they are responsible for. The company encourages innovation and improvement through a structured awards scheme and rewards the resultant new ideas both with appropriate remuneration and at national and international celebration events. It also rewards exceptional workplace performance with a bonus incentivised performance management system.

Bill Bigley is the UK manufacturing strategy manager.

“The best thing about working for MBDA (UK) manufacturing is the learning process,” he says. “It’s a tremendous university – every day is different with different challenges and opportunities. We don’t always get it right, but we continuously try to learn from all our experiences, good and bad, to make sure we do it better next time.” Apprenticeship programmes are something dear to Bernie Waldron’s heart. He was, in fact, the company’s last 15 year old apprentice, having begun as an Electrical Craft Apprentice in 1971. Perhaps that’s why MBDA has created a programme for its 61 apprentices which, in a speech to the House of Commons with Iain Wright MP, the former under secretary of state for 14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships, Bolton MP Julie Hilling described as “truly fantastic”.

The company employs engineering and business apprentices on four year programmes based on three pillars of development: professional, personal, and technical. The apprentices complete a variety of NVQs throughout their four years culminating in either a HND or BA honours degree.

On reaching the final year of the programme, as well as having gained IMechE (Institution of Mechanical Engineers) and/or IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) accreditation, each apprentice is placed in a role in which they are expected to continue once their apprenticeship has ended thereby maximising their opportunity to add real value to the company as early as possible in their careers. MBDA also encourages their development through entry into such prestigious competitions as the UK and World Skills competitions for apprentices and has had many significant successes in both.

Throughout the programme the apprentices carry out placements for up to nine months at a time within different departments of the business. This offers the opportunity for the apprentices to work across the different UK sites and even abroad – John Gregory, a fourth year engineering apprentice, recently returned from a placement alongside Fireshadow at an RAF base in Cyprus – and the company holds regular training weeks through its MBDA Technical Institute based at Stevenage and other MBDA sites in Italy, Germany and France. Here, the apprentices are instructed in the end-to-end process of missile design and manufacture from first principles.

On the personal side, each apprentice is given £100 per year through the Personal & Assisted Study Scheme (PASS) to spend on any element of personal development of their choice – e.g. music exams or driving lessons. Each apprentice is assigned an existing employee from their department to act as a ‘buddy’ when they join the company and they attend regular one-on-one meetings with Bernie Waldron and his senior management team to report on their progress, register any concerns and suggest any improvements from their ongoing experiences.

Throughout the company there are many individuals, Bernie included, that perform extra curricular responsibilities such as governors for local schools. This embeds strong links in the community and offers the opportunity for apprentices to visit and inform school children what a career in an engineering company such as MBDA is really like. The apprentices are given ambassadorial training in order to hold workshops and mock interviews for the prospective next generation. They are 131 also responsible for orchestrating and overseeing work experience placements and many of the school children that partake often end up becoming apprentices at the company themselves.

John Gregory, a fourth year apprentice, was the UK Skills’ electronics apprentice of the year in 2009 and has also won awards from Wigan College for ‘Innovation’ and ‘Best Student’. He says the secondary aspects of the apprenticeship e.g.

the ambassadorial role are extremely useful to him in building professional confidence and providing him with a varied skill set. “The apprentice programme is tailored around the individual and our whole career development as well as for the job in hand. As long as you can justify the need then the company will support you in your application for any serious development or improvement aim. The opportunities are endless.” Beth Sherborne, a third year business apprentice and winner of the Alliance Learning Award, adds: “It’s such a community based site which makes it a great place to work. People here will always give you a lot of time and they’re all happy to help you. And the ambassadorial role gives us an opportunity to tell girls that there are now equal opportunities for a career within a traditionally male dominated industry.” In fact, MBDA has more female apprentices on its books than male and many are working in the engineering functions as well in their supply chain and procurement departments.

Onwards and upwards
Overall, a decade of continual process improvements since the formation of MBDA has seen the company emerge as one of the UK’s truly world class manufacturers. Lead times have been significantly reduced by a factor of ten with a consequential beneficial impact on inventory management and stockturns. Coupled with its focus on schedule adherence, cost and quality management MBDA continually strives to demonstrate its improved “added value”.

The future challenges which MBDA faces are already being addressed in Bernie Waldron’s team as they strive to become ever more flexible, agile and responsive in every aspect of the resources they call upon to deliver their business. “The facilities, equipments and, perhaps most importantly, the people and their capabilities need to be continually challenged and extended to ensure that the strategic balance between responsive delivery of an increasingly complex weapons portfolio and optimised whole life costs and value for money is maintained,” says Waldron.

Where the future is concerned, MBDA looks set to remain firmly on the offensive.