Nearly every kid who has been to an airport or a military air show has pointed to a jetliner or a fighter plane and asked with wonder, "How did they make that?"
These days, executives at the country's aerospace titans and the military's top officials are doing the same thing.
With the help of no less an engineering powerhouse than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, representatives from industry and government are reexamining the way aircraft of all types are designed and produced. Taking the lead from a groundbreaking study of the Japanese auto industry, they are rethinking the long-held tenets of mass production and changing their corporate cultures in order to make better planes using fewer resources.
In less than five years, this partnership, dubbed the Lean Aerospace Initiative, has resulted in efficiency gains of up to 75% in some of the 16 companies involved in the program. Now the firms are preparing to implement the principles of lean manufacturing on a grand scale for even greater savings.
"The aerospace field has been driven by performance goals more than affordability and manufacturability goals," said Earll Murman, an MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor who is the initiative's program director. "That no longer builds competitive companies. I don't mean to say that performance is unimportant, but a well-performing product which is not affordable or takes too much time to market is not going to be successful."
Much of the U.S. aerospace industry was facing a dubious future in 1993, when defense contractors were feeling the economic impact of the Cold War's demise. With shrinking budgets, Lt. Gen. Thomas R. Ferguson Jr., then chief of the Air Force's Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, saw that major adjustments would be required for both the industry and the military, which had gotten very comfortable with seemingly limitless budgets.
He contacted MIT, where professors had turned Japan's auto makers inside-out to learn how they made consistently reliable cars at low prices.
What they found was a lean production system that emphasized perfect first-time quality, waste minimization and continuous improvement. To achieve these goals, the Japanese companies included manufacturing workers on engineering design teams to ensure that the designs would be easy to build. They also streamlined inventories and allowed workers to perform more tasks and stop production lines when flaws were found.
While the U.S. auto industry was beginning to incorporate the principles of lean production, MIT decided to study how they could be applied to aerospace manufacturing. The university has devoted about 45 people--faculty, researchers and graduate students--to the Lean Aerospace Initiative, and participating companies contribute hundreds of their employees to the effort. The project has an annual budget of $3 million, funded by industry and the federal government.
Research groups in the initiative are now focusing on product development, factory operations and supplier relations as they search for ways to streamline the production process. They are also studying how government policy affects the efficiency of manufacturers, and a new group will look at space operations, Murman said.
Unlike traditional aerospace research--in which data come from wind tunnel tests or computer simulations of fluid dynamics--the Lean Aerospace Initiative requires creative approaches to data gathering because it is the company being studied, not its airplane, said Thomas Allen, a professor in MIT's Sloan School of Management and co-director of the initiative.
Some information, like cost data, can be culled from company records. Other questions, such as the degree to which firms are using computer-aided design programs, must be answered through surveys and interviews. In some cases, MIT researchers act like anthropologists, simply observing what goes on on the factory floor.
The results of this research have already made their way into companies around the country, including the top three defense contractors--Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md.; Seattle's Boeing Co.; and Raytheon Co. in Lexington, Mass.
"Lean production is a new way of doing business," said Don Meadows, director of strategic planning for operations with Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems in Marietta, Ga. "It's not just something you apply to manufacturing, but to engineering, accounting and marketing as well."
That sentiment notwithstanding, most companies have started small, making specific improvements to particular lines rather than initiating complete overhauls.
At Northrop Grumman Corp., for example, the company has implemented more than 50 reforms since it became involved with the initiative, said Ed Harmon, team leader for lean and agile manufacturing.
One of those practices is to use software to simulate processes on the factory floor before deciding how the production line should be set up. Having tools and other materials in the best possible layout has reduced manufacturing cycle time and the number of workers needed by 10%, Harmon said.
Los Angeles-based Northrop also reduced the variation between different manufacturing processes so that workers are more versatile. In addition, workers are now responsible for inspecting their own work, a change that has improved quality, Harmon said.
Cleveland-based TRW Inc.'s avionics system division in San Diego rearranged its factory so workers can take part in planning, maintenance, tooling and inspection--tasks that were previously completed by a number of specialists, said Chuck Ebeling, the manufacturing director there.
Lean manufacturing proponents at the Boeing plant that assembles the C-17 military transport plane in Long Beach rolled out a series of small improvements that added up to big savings. Over the last four years, lean practices have contributed to a 64% reduction in the C-17's cost-of-quality index, said Richard Harstad, director of manufacturing and quality for the C-17 Systems Program Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The cost of rework and repair, a subset of the cost-of-quality index, has been reduced by 75%, he said.
Within the next month, Boeing will overhaul its 100-person C-17 nose assembly line so it is lean from start to finish, said Pat Kelley, director of final assembly at the C-17 plant. The engine shop, with 30 workers, is next on the list.
"We want to do lessons learned from each area and then apply them to other areas," Kelley said. "Eventually, we'll get all our areas running lean."
Manufacturers said they expect some of the biggest savings to come through the use of integrated product teams, combining engineers, assemblers and suppliers. At Raytheon Systems Co. (formerly Hughes Aircraft Co.) the use of such teams has reduced cycle times 20% to 25% and costs at least 30% while improving design quality, said Tom Spires, an executive with Raytheon's air combat strike division in El Segundo.
Raytheon's radar upgrade program for the F-15 fighter aircraft was designed with lean principles in mind from the start. The project is just going into production and has already achieved more than 50% cost savings and completed its design work 30% faster compared with other programs, Spires said.
The critical link in lean manufacturing, executives say, is the worker on the factory floor.
"In my opinion, the assemblers are the only ones who know what works and what doesn't," Ebeling said. "We're really trying to empower them so they can feed back design changes without requiring a lot of bureaucratic red tape."
Of course, once workers are given more responsibility, companies will require fewer of them. Aerospace executives say they are sensitive to that. The United Auto Workers--which also represents aerospace workers--is a member of the Lean Aerospace Initiative, although a spokesman declined to discuss its involvement. (Another union, the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, recently dropped out of the MIT consortium.)
Like many executives, Northrop Grumman's Harmon said that if his company doesn't adopt lean practices, he risks losing market share and having to lay off workers.
"Our objective is to become more competitive so that we can attract more business," Harmon said. "If we don't get lean, we know we're going to lose business, and then we're all at risk."
None of the major aerospace companies said they have had to lay off workers after adopting lean techniques. In fact, Fred Stahl, director of technology for Boeing's Washington, D.C., office, said companies that embrace lean manufacturing typically end up hiring more workers.
"Workers are fundamentally enthusiastic about it," Stahl said. "When lean production is put in place, people start paying attention to the needs of the workers. With the responsibility that the workers get, it makes the job much more rewarding and fulfilling."
For MIT, the payoff comes in seeing the industry benefit from the work of the Lean Aerospace Initiative.
"It's not rocket science," said MIT's Murman, who could fairly be described as a rocket scientist himself. "But it's terribly important."
Karen Kaplan covers technology and can be reached at email@example.com