E&T learns how the US helicopter maker's ACE operating system enables it to keep effective control of an extremely complex manufacturing process, supplying military and civilian customers around the world.
A ten tonne Black Hawk helicopter flat-out at almost 180mph is one of the most fearsome sights in modern warfare.
Powered by two GE T700 turboshaft engines, the four-blade medium lift aircraft has been the workhorse of the US military since it entered service 31 years ago, and currently the US has almost 1,500 in service. But it is not just the US that makes use of the aircraft over 20 countries around the globe, including Australia, Brazil, Japan, Israel and China, also make use of its considerable capabilities.
It can carry either 11 troops and their equipment or a cargo of over a tonne, and has seen service in conflicts around the globe starting with the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, through the biggest ever aerial assault by US forces where 300 helicopters were deployed during the Gulf War to the current hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The aircraft has even been immortalised by Hollywood in Ridley Scott's 2001 blockbuster 'Black Hawk Down', which featured Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore and Ewan McGregor. The aircraft has been manufactured by US company Sikorsky at its facility in Stratford, Connecticut since its inception in 1976.
Sikorsky was founded 87 years ago by engineer Igor Sikorsky, who had been constructing and flying fixed-wing aircraft in Russia before the revolution. It started out in Roosevelt, New York, but a few years later moved out to Stratford.
In 1939, the Kiev-born US immigrant developed a stable, single-rotor, fully-controllable helicopter, and in 1942 a modified version became the world's first helicopter to enter full-scale production. The company he founded remains one of the leading helicopter manufacturers, producing such well-known models as the UH-60 Black Hawk and SH-60 Seahawk, as well as experimental types like the Sikorsky S-72 X-Wing.
There are over 10,000 parts in a modern helicopter, and Sikorsky currently manufactures just under 20 per cent of these in-house. The company carried out an extensive value stream mapping operation to highlight which parts to keep in-house, which include all safety-critical parts.
Helicopters today are highly sophisticated, and are expected to perform in diverse environments with low flight-hour costs and high availability rates. 'Manufacturing them entails many challenges, especially brand-new models such as the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk and MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, and, on the commercial side, the S-76D helicopter,' Paul Jackson, spokesman for Sikorsky Aircraft Company, explains.
Chief among these challenges is establishing and maintaining a strong and reliable supply chain to deliver the 80 per cent of the aircraft that is purchased externally. All these purchased items are delivered to the assembly hall on a just-in-time basis to keep on-hand inventory as low as possible.
'It is vital to procure the many components in a timely manner, whether they are manufactured in-house or from external suppliers,' Jackson adds. 'Since many components are long lead-time items, inventory management becomes very important.'
On the topic of challenges, he explains that key requirements to a successful operation include: having a well-trained and knowledgeable workforce; having clear and accurate engineering diagrams and instructions that help avoid scrap, rework and repairs, which can be costly; meeting production deadlines and, of course, managing cost throughout the process.
Achieving competitive excellence (ACE)
To enable them to maintain effective control of the manufacturing process, Sikorsky employs an operating system that fosters quality and efficiency, known as Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) system. ACE is used throughout the operations of parent company United Technologies Corporation (UTC), whose portfolio also includes the likes of Pratt & Whitney, Otis Lifts, UTC Power and Rocketdyne.
'It is 100 per cent customer focused,' Jackson explains. 'Customer requirements shape all of our processes, which are carefully mapped so that everyone involved can easily understand and follow them. Those processes are continuously reviewed for opportunities to improve efficiencies that lower costs and improve quality and product delivery.
'Metrics are developed and maintained continually to measure adherence to process and to identify improvement opportunities. Whenever a breakdown in a process occurs and a product or service falls short of the expected outcome, a very structured and relentless root-cause analysis is performed to identify the cause and to take corrective action that will prevent a recurrence.'
Here is a very simplified description of the system: ACE is a comprehensive set-up with many tools for continuously improving quality. Every department or working group in the UTC group must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of ACE and employ its many tools on a continuous basis in order to progress from the 'bronze' to the 'silver' and finally to the 'gold' level. 'Organisations at the ACE gold level are proven to perform with high efficiency and to produce high quality results that benefit both the customer and the company,' Jackson adds.
Visual aids that increase productivity and efficiency are located throughout Sikorsky facilities as part of ACE. ACE boards that identify the level at which a particular working group is performing whether it be bronze, silver or gold are hung throughout both the manufacturing and office areas. 'You will also see the key metrics tracked by that working group, and performance versus the metrics,' Jackson says. 'These boards give employees a constant and clear picture of our customer commitments.'
As part of the 6S ACE tool in the Sikorsky vocabulary, 6S stands for Safety, Sort, Straighten, Sustain, Standardise and Shine all cabinets, drawers, supply cabinets, toolboxes, component corrals, and other storage areas, whether in the manufacturing or office areas, are clearly labelled. This allows employees to find the tools they need quickly without wasting any time.
Another ACE tool is called the Visual Factory. This involves the organisation of work space and tools, along with placement of signs, diagrams and other graphics that clearly and quickly inform even an untrained visitor about the work performed in that area and how that work is done. In the Military Assembly Centre, screens are placed at every build station to show the exact and current status of each aircraft in production. This tool is particularly helpful in keeping the work shifts fully informed on work completed and work still in progress.
Talking of shifts, the facility operates on a 24-hour, three-shift arrangement, with two regular eight-hour shifts followed by a third that makes up time wherever it is required.
Factories operating on the large scale
Aside from the complexity we have already discovered that it takes 10,000 components to manufacture a helicopter the sheer size of the aircraft is a challenge. The UH-60 Black Hawk is 20m long, 2.5m wide and 5m tall. Even bigger is the new Sikorsky CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, under development for the US Marine Corps, which will require a great deal of space not only for assembly but also for machining parts.
'Meeting the complexity challenge requires an extremely well-trained work force, from engineering and supply management to assembly, inspection and flight testing,' Jackson says. 'Sikorsky maintains training programmes for the many aspects of aircraft production and maintenance, such as an Aviation Maintenance Technician programme, and the company's own Sikorsky University, which offers classroom, shop-floor and online training for employees. Of course, aggressively recruiting, hiring and retaining talented employees is always essential.'
It takes 40 days for an aircraft to make its way through the huge assembly hall at Stratford, provided that all parts are delivered on time. The aircraft crawls along the slow-moving assembly line, moving from station to station, its assembly crew keeping station with it. Any required testing is carried out on station and the aisles are wide enough that any aircraft that has a problem, or part missing can be towed away.
At the end of the production line the aircraft moves into the finishing hangars, where blades are added before a five- to seven-hour flight test.
'Sikorsky's production approach is designed to minimise assembly time and keep production on a flow schedule to meet customer delivery requirements,' Jackson says. Standard, baseline configurations are built at the facility; these are designated as 'Green Aircraft', and then delivered to finishing centres for customised completion depending upon customer requirements there is another manufacturing centre in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, for commercial aircraft.
If a foreign military customer orders a Black Hawk helicopter with special mission systems and equipment, the baseline aircraft will be assembled in Stratford and sent to Sikorsky's completion centre in Horseheads, New York. Another example: the baseline MH-60R Seahawk is assembled in Stratford and the mission system is installed at the Lockheed Martin Systems Integration facility in Owego, New York. This system keeps the main production lines flowing.
'The green production lines involve a series of build stations at which wiring and subassemblies, tail cones, transmissions, engines, doors and all the other components are installed in sequence before the aircraft are rolled into the flight hangar for testing, final adjustments, and customer delivery and/or delivery to a completion centre. This flow allows for new assemblies to start on predetermined schedules at the beginning of the line,' Jackson says.
Terrorism and manufacturing
Manufacturing and delivery of military hardware offers Sikorsky its own unique set of challenges. 'Export Control requirements are rigorous and have become even more so since terrorism became a global concern,' Jackson explains.
'Non-US citizens are prohibited from seeing or accessing technical data related to US Government aircraft programmes. This creates challenges for global and diverse companies such as Sikorsky, but we certainly understand the need and we comply fully with all government requirements.'
Guided by its ACE system, Sikorsky's manufacturing has done well in recent years, as Jackson explains: 'We have had many productivity successes over the past year or two. To mention just a few, we increased aircraft production: Deliveries in 2009 will total 230-240; we increased production and delivery of military spare parts; lowered our labour costs per hour; increased our global sourcing; and increased the number of ACE gold and silver sites.'
Although somewhat protected from the global manufacturing trends by the need for the US military to source military hardware domestically, Sikorsky still faces some tough challenges in both the near- and mid-term. However, with its continued drive to improve its production processes it looks well set to meet those demands. And having an iconic product such as the Black Hawk will do its prospects no harm at all.