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Lean manufacturing improved Boeing's Apache Longbow helicopter factory processes, enabling the facility to win the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing

By Patrick Waurzyniak
Senior Editor 


When the Boeing Co.'s (Chicago) Mesa, AZ, manufacturing facility began its transition to assembling the next-generation AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter in 1998, the assembly operation's overall performance declined and cycle times increased.

Deploying lean concepts including high-performance workteams turned things around dramatically for the Boeing facility, which to date has delivered nearly 1500 Apache helicopters for the US Army and 10 international customers. Implementing lean techniques adopted by Boeing in the late 1990s allowed the Arizona helicopter manufacturer to reduce final assembly, integration, and test hours per aircraft by 85% over the past five years. Last March, the Mesa facility's performance helped win the prestigious Shingo Prize for Manufacturing awarded annually by the College of Business at Utah State University (Logan, UT).

"In 1998, we realized that performance was going down," says Jim Luby, manager, Quality and Lean Enterprise, at the Boeing facility in Mesa, while recalling the Mesa operation's transition to the next-generation Apache. "All the numbers, like cycle time, cost, were headed the wrong way. Every aircraft literally took longer than the last one, and you would think when you apply normal learning, that shouldn't be."

Reducing costs and eliminating waste, the Boeing plant initially installed a single lean pulsed production line to manufacture the Longbow helicopter. With its lean framework, the facility uses an enterprise value stream process that identifies the key processes associated with Apache production, managing how work is done. The system allows the flexibility to meet customer demand by providing necessary resources to mechanics at point of use, and working to standard repeatable processes that enable a single-piece flow.

At the 2-million ft2 (186,000 m2) manufacturing facility in Mesa, Boeing employs about 4500 people using the lean manufacturing techniques of the Boeing Production System, which integrates processes, people and tools into the manufacturing support systems. The Mesa facility is a component of Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems (IDS), a $30.5 billion business with more than 78,000 employees.

With approximately 64,000 ft2 (5952 m2) of manufacturing space devoted to Apache assembly, the Boeing helicopter team has shown dramatic improvements in manufacturing metrics since implementing lean in 1999, including on-time delivery of 100% and overall production hours per aircraft reduced more than 48%. The facility also reduced manufacturing cycle time more than 40% over the past six years since 1998.

Implementing lean also helped the Mesa site reduce the number of internal defects more than 58% since 2000 while the cost of internal defects (rework, repair and scrap) declined more than 61% in that timeframe. Lost workday case rate declined more than 58% since 2000 along with a 76% reduction in the lost workday rate over the past four years since 2000.

Since winning the Shingo Prize, the plant has added to its lean toolbox by revamping the pulsed line into a U-shaped lean assembly line that has further strengthened Boeing Mesa's production capabilities. "We have added to the lean process by putting the structural line in the same building with our assembly line," says Ed Koopman, general manager of the Mesa manufacturing site. "Rather than a straight pulsed moving line, it is now a U-shaped line where we do structural modification and assembly in the same building, and we've realized an additional 5 to 8% reduction in cycle time by doing that.

"We started looking at the next year, looking at making the next run at the prize," Koopman adds, "trying to get a little bit more emphasis on the lean process in our structural area, which is bare-bones airplane, green-airplane structure, as opposed to where it comes off the assembly line with all the rotor heads, tails, and guns. We've taken another step in trying to continue the process."

At the time Mesa introduced lean on the shop floor, several lean initiatives were being introduced throughout Boeing, including the early lean work at the Boeing IDS facility in Seattle where the company currently assembles key wing and fuselage assemblies for the next-generation F/A-22 Raptor jet fighter aircraft (see "Lean Fighter," in the March 2005 issue of Manufacturing Engineering.) A number of Mesa managers, including Luby and Janet Riley, Shingo Prize project leader, received training from the Boeing Lean Office, becoming Accelerated Improvement Workshop facilitators, and the facility also started used the Shingijutsu consultants from Japan that had been used previously by Boeing Commercial Aircraft (BCA).

"We obviously piggy-backed on that and we had three events over here in a year's time period," recalls Luby of working with Shingijutsu's lean consultants. "One of the key things with the Shingijutsu, and it's probably a cultural thing in that you didn't plan on executing weeks to months later, was their idea that 'This is what you ought to do, get going. You've got five minutes.' So you did it that week."

At that time, the Mesa facility needed major changes to the line. "We were changing the line, because were on what I'll call a stagnant, stationary 45º line, with all the aircraft down the line, and they weren't moving," Luby says. "Basically, if you think of a parking lot at the mall, where ever you found a parking spot, we parked aircraft--obviously, no visible flow. You couldn't get the status of any aircraft. There was a lot of undoing of work."

"Once we started to learn some of the tools, some of us had the opportunity to go to Japan-Ed Koopman was one of them, and he got to work in the same factory I did there, the Hitachi Air Conditioning," Luby adds. "Ed looked at that and I remember him coming back and saying 'they build big air conditioners with wires, plumbing, and parts, and we build helicopters with wires, plumbing and parts--why can't we do the same?' So we set out to do that on a line, measure our Takt, and measure every aspect of the production, with the help of Shingijutsu, with help from Boeing Commercial Aircraft, on some of the training to implement lean."

A significant emotional event came later that helped push along the Mesa site's implementation of lean, which often can encounter initial resistance from workers unaccustomed to new ways of working. "It's difficult," Luby says of lean changes. "You're talking about the Japanese culture, and individuals have a tendency to not want to do some things because it wasn't invented here.

"The real significant event out there was when Ed, as our site GM, came out to the floor and the team said 'hey look, we've simulated the shop, this engine build-up area, and how we want to go build it.' And Ed said, 'Great, I've got to go out on a business trip for about two weeks, and when I get back, I want to see it implemented.' Two weeks later, Monday morning at a quarter to 6, Ed was greeting all the workers coming in, saying 'Hey guys, I'm back. Show me what you did.'

High-performance workteams also helped along Mesa's lean manufacturing adoption. "If you don't solidify the process on high-performance workteams and let these folks work in cells, you're doing nothing more than having them follow routine planning," Luby notes. "By having them work in high-performance workteams, they take the initiative to improve process, and improve the quality.

"The best example I can give you is that prior to doing this, we were building the engine up in a back shop," Luby adds. "We were having the engine delivered to the workstation, and the darn thing would never fit, because the couplings were bad, or the B nuts didn't work, or the tubes weren't bent right. So what we decided to do was we moved the engine build-up right next to the aircraft, and the guy who built the engine up has to install it. And I'll tell you what-that thing fits every time now! Otherwise, you'd have to pull it out and start over again.

"With lean, you get tested because people believe it's a flavor-of-the-month type of thing, and if you're not willing to get into the foxhole with these folks and test it, then it's become just another event. It'd never happened I don't think, unless we had just absolutely pushed this thing."

Lean also has helped the Apache line plan different iterations of the helicopter running at the same time on the same line, Luby notes, allowing the factory to build versions for the US Army right next to copies for allied countries.

"Those multiple types go down the same line-it's a mixed-model line-so it's sort of like a Toyota line, where you could have Camrys and Corollas going down the line. These are all Apaches, but the work content could be significantly different in some positions," Luby says. "You look at one aircraft, it could be Egyptian, the next one US Army, and the next one Singapore. They all move at the same rate."

"It's extremely difficult, if you talk about the fact that you're building re-manned aircraft, aircraft that's come back from theater, have been completely stripped, and new hardware put on them, and you're building new aircraft for our international customers, all of which have different radios, different avionics suites or electronics, and you've built it on the same line, at the same time, in sequence, by just changing the planning and the flow of parts. The people are just the same. They don't care if it's a pink Volkswagen or a black Volkswagen, they've got planning that does that. A lot of airframers won't do that. They will take specialty aircraft that are meant for international customers and take them to a mod center and do them. That's very expensive."

In most instances, the Mesa assembly delivers kitted parts directly to a workstation functioning as a Just-in-Time system except with some major equipment items, like avionics and other major assemblies. The facility also is applying the process to the Apache's electrical products center, where Boeing builds about 3000 electrical assemblies a month here for all Boeing fixed-wing military aircraft including the C-17, F-18, F-15, T-45 aircraft, as well as ground-based missile defenses.

"We also build it with a lean process type of thought process," Luby says. "It doesn't go on a moving line, but it's really process-driven, wherein you have all of your process consolidated on electrical assemblies in the one area that then goes into unique customer requirements."

Boeing Mesa's lean advances have earned it top honors in the Boeing-wide company lean assessments over the past four years, with the next ranking due out in December. And in addition to the site winning the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing this year, the Boeing Mesa team also was the sole recipient of the Shingo HR Medallion award given to the one manufacturing facility recognized for the best human resources practices in support of lean manufacturing processes.

"It's important because this is about leadership, about leaders leading, creating the vision, and about people executing," Luby says. "Tools are tools. Lean is, if you will, like a tool, it's the medicine. Until you're ready to roll up your sleeves and take the shot, you're not going to get better. That's kind of what we've said on the line for a long time."


This article was first published in the November 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 11/1/2005

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