Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. builds some of the fiercest fighter planes around, like the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 is described as a stealthy, supersonic tactical aircraft for the 21st century. And yet engineering the military craft of the future was actually the easy part. Making it in 20th century conditions was much harder.
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics (LM Aero), a division of the $37 billion Lockheed Martin Corp., manufactures combat aircraft, airlifters, and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft in seven U.S. production facilities. Its low-cost, innovative designs have helped it win many government contracts. But LM Aero is not immune to competitive pressure. So when the F-35 proposal was on the table back in 2000, the company had to win not only on design and quality, but also on an aggressive manufacturing schedule. Plans called for more than 3,000 F-35 aircraft to roll out over the life of the program.
In order to deliver, LM Aero had to demonstrate it could produce the F-35 in half the time it took to make earlier-generation fighter planes. And that would require a big change in the company's infrastructure of custom-built legacy systems and production workflow, which had not been built for integration between processes.
"Everything was distributed by paper," says Brad Leech, a senior manager at LM Aero in Fort Worth, TX. "We had people running paper around. When engineering changes were pushed down [to the factory floor], multiple [hard] copies had to be made." Every piece of the build order, from blueprints to work instructions to bill of materials and tooling requirements, [was] in print."
To remedy the problem, Leech and a team of shop floor and business managers embarked on a mission of their own. The Electronic Work Instruction (EWI) project was developed to improve product quality and enhance business processes and infrastructure for the design and manufacture of the F-35. The company on the cutting edge of aircraft engineering had to apply similarly radical thinking to its in-house technology, moving to a commercial manufacturing execution system (MES) and laying the groundwork for an integrated environment that eliminates paper, streamlines processes, and provides real-time visibility of all engineering data and work instructions to the shop floor.
For moving its own company's manufacturing capabilities boldly into the 21st century and recognizing the need to tightly tie together information to gain a competitive edge, LM Aero was named one of two winners of Managing Automation's 2006 Progressive Manufacturing Award in the category of Data & Integration Mastery.
To Boldly Go...
LM Aero started the EWI Project with a plan to move paper documents into the electronic realm by way of Visiprise Inc.'s (formerly HMS Software Inc.) Computer Aided Process Planning (CAPP) and Shop Floor Management (SFM) applications. Since the project's launch in 2001-2002, the scope has grown. LM Aero has interconnected systems among departments such as engineering, quality, labor, and accounting. More interfaces are underway, including connections to a configuration management system and the new, yet-to-be-selected ERP system, which will replace an antiquated, customized MRP system.
"We've built interfaces to over 80 business systems that feed data," says Sunitha Zacharia, LM Aero's shop floor manager in Fort Worth. "We'll retire 17 or 18 of those major systems. Where a lot of the data fed through multiple sources, they all integrate into EWI now."
Because most of the systems EWI connects with are legacy, much of the connectivity occurs through custom programming. On the shop floor alone, there are close to 30 interfaces and AMTrix middleware from Frontec in use. Eventually, as LM Aero phases out its legacy systems, it will move to more Web-based standards, like XML, for accessing data.
Under the old regime, for example, a legacy system for document management required a user to log in to an isolated system in order to print a blueprint. That blueprint would then be taken to production to update manuals. At the end of the day, mechanics would move to two additional terminals -- a data collection system and a labor accounting system -- to update the project on work completed.
With EWI, all of that data transfer is automatic. "It is both eliminating paper and speeding up the change process to eliminate some of the scrap and rework going on," notes Keith Hurlburt, business manager for the EWI team. "The mechanic spent a lot of time getting documentation together... we were trying to come up with some type of one-stop shop for them."
"Engineering changes are done in real-time now," Leech adds. "It used to take seven days from logging to walking it out to the floor."
LM Aero, like most companies in the aerospace and defense (A&D) industry, has been risk-averse when it comes to deploying technology, which is why it has survived on homegrown legacy systems for decades. Data existed on paper and in people's heads. But with an aging workforce -- at LM Aero the average age on the shop floor is 54 -- and pressure from the government to update systems in order to win new contracts, such companies must rethink manufacturing. Moving toward a commercial MES offering is a logical start.
"A&D is pretty archaic and the paper-on-glass thing is a huge step forward for them," says Alison Smith, an analyst at AMR Research (Boston). "But that's why we're seeing an above-the-norm increase in spending on MES by this segment... I think there's a lot of pent-up demand that's just starting to be filled now."
For LM Aero, it was a huge step forward from legacy to commercial client-server MES. The seemingly simple task of replacing paper with electronic work instructions, however, is not easy. "It takes time to do this," says Dave Chambliss, COO of Visiprise. "You have to have a long-term commitment to change your manufacturing space."
But the payoff in increased efficiency, improved data integrity, higher product quality, reduced system support costs, and, of course, a government contract, were worth the effort. Now, the EWI Project is live in Fort Worth as well as three other locations building other military combat craft.
The plan is to connect more manufacturing systems, and then tie them into the future ERP system. "The Visiprise product," Leech says, "is mobile enough and flexible enough to interface with any stand-alone hardware or software application that might present itself on the F-35 program, which is what we're focused on for the future."