Carlos Robles
AMBE Engineering
Expert Contributor

The Subtle Art of Understanding Aerospace Manufacturing

By Carlos Robles | Fri, 12/10/2021 - 11:49

Lately, a lot of people have asked me why it is so difficult to do business within the aerospace industry. If you provide services or products but have never worked with an aerospace company, there is always a feeling of either fear, misunderstanding or frustration when you try to enter or even understand the sector. There are multiple reasons for that on the technical side. The engineering and design of an airplane is quite complex. That is the main reason why the life cycle of the product and the investment phases are quite different from those in other industries like automotive, which usually is a reference. The design and prototyping phases are time-consuming and heavy on capital investment. At the end of the day, we are talking about a very complex product that is not allowed to have any quality or function-related flaws. With a car, you have roadside assistance, but there is no chance of that when you are flying!

As a result of product and design complexity, and adding the fact that the number of parts per aircraft is huge, the supply chain is not only large and complex, but very specialized as well. There are far more complex or larger supply chains in other sectors. However, what differentiates and makes the aerospace supply chain very special is the very low volumes and the very high level of customization. This is a market requirement. An airline might buy 20 aircraft and most likely they will look similar if not the same. But another customer most likely will ask for very different items. That characteristic gives the power of negotiation to the suppliers. In addition to that, in many cases patents and intellectual property rights belong 100 percent to the supply base. As a result, prices tend to be high, and you better treat your supplier like a king or they can choose not to work with you. The other issue is that the base of suppliers has been practically the same for the last 20 years, but the new aerospace programs have seen the addition of at least 25 new commercial programs.

The number of processes in the manufacturing of a part is very high as well; therefore, vertical integration is very rare to see. A small, machined part usually requires various processes, machining, shot peening, hardening, chemical processes, surface treatments, special quality inspections and even small assemblies. It is difficult to have all of these processes in-house. As a result, that part will travel to different factories and will require multiple industrial relationships, which add complexity to the delivery to OEMs. Not only that, process certifications have a high level of priority to guarantee that every process delivers the expected results. If a company is already certified under a quality system, it will be that much closer to getting an aerospace certification. At the same time, you need to understand items specific to aerospace operations. Traceability, for example, is a given in both aerospace and automotive, but the level of detail required for the aerospace sector is much deeper. Every single item, from raw material source to every detail until integrated into the aircraft, is documented: which processes were followed, what materials were used, who manufactured it and who completed the quality inspection? If any deviation to the processes was required, it must be analyzed and authorized by the proper certified entity or person.

Process-wise, most of the products have such a low volume of production that statistical process control would take years to gather information for a decent sized sample. Efficiency tools can be implemented but need to be adapted to the particularities of a process where volume is low, the sequence is not always the same, and the product itself not only may but most likely should have variations. That is exactly why it is so hard to comprehend the processes and many people coming from other industries have a very hard time trying to implement tools or methodologies that are useful in different production systems. Yes, we want to increase efficiency, improve quality, and cut costs, but the rules of the game are quite different from many other production environments.

As if all of that were not enough, this is a very intensive sector in terms of labor. It has few robots, little automation and a lot of people using their hands, talent, and intelligence to manufacture highly complex components. That is also the reason why people need to have all their skills validated and certified. Companies need to heavily invest in the initial training of their employees. Every company has its own certification programs depending on the process they are going to execute. But, in general, it takes around four months if everything goes well before a new employee can touch the product, first with supervision and alone once certified. After that, recertification processes apply for some skills within defined time frames, but also if an employee leaves work for whatever reason for more than six months. In this case, the employee would need new training to come back to the same role within the organization.

There are many more reasons why the aerospace industry is so different from many others, but in my view, the above description represents the majority of reasons why the sector is so difficult to understand and far more difficult for new players to enter into. It is not simple, but at the same time, it is not impossible.

If you want to know more about the industry or, even better, if you want to enter the global supply chain in any tier, my advice is to establish relationships with people who have the right knowledge, the experience and understanding of the sector. It might sound silly but sometimes if a potential supplier mentions core tools like SPC, APQP or PPAP, and claims to have experience in aerospace processes, I know I am in front of a liar. Even the language of core tools in aerospace is different. If you are interested in the sector, there are great people in Mexico with the right knowledge who are willing to help.

By now you must think this is a very complex sector, and you are right, but it is not impossible to do business within it. Moreover, there is a huge need for new suppliers with the right processes and who are willing to adapt their tools, language, and mindset for low volume, high mix. The opportunity is huge but will be materialized only by those that understand the market and culture they are about to enter, and more importantly, that are willing to learn and adapt. In that sense, the old saying has never been more true: It is not the strongest who survive, but the most adaptable.

Photo by:   Carlos Robles