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Strengthening Supply Chains

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

Struggling to get parts & materials? Tired of high prices? The root cause may surprise you.


Ever since the perfect storm of import tariffs, a global pandemic and a self-inflicted skilled worker shortage, supply chains everywhere have been in trouble, with long lead times and rising prices just a few of the ongoing challenges. What can organizations and manufacturers do to minimize the effects and recover from supply chain woes affecting everyone, everywhere? And perhaps most importantly, how can future storms be prevented?

Mike Kauffman, vice president of supply chain at General Electric Aerospace, Evandale, Ohio, has some ideas. He helps manage a supply chain with more than 450 direct suppliers, 30 internal OEM sites, 16 sites in the company’s MRO network and more than 50,000 unique part numbers. “That’s a lot of complexity, and in a time of supply chain constraint, complexity is not your friend,” Kauffman laments.

Focused on Flight

This custom loading structure for an aerospace application is one example of the work performed at Tooling Tech Group. (Provided by Tooling Tech Group)

Kauffman made these comments at this year’s Paris Air Show, where he went on to describe some of the steps the global aerospace manufacturing company has taken to address today’s supply chain challenges. For starters, Kauffman and his thousands-strong team have “worked very hard” on internal management systems, focusing on product-line alignment and solving constraints through the lens of the customer, an effort that he notes has brought great clarity.

The engine giant says it has made breakthrough investments in software tools, greatly increasing its ability to see work-in-process (WIP) and “order book health” within the supply base. GE Aerospace also invested heavily in its procurement organization, carving out a 200-person team to focus solely on supplier recovery and future readiness. The company also conducts Gemba Walks with suppliers and internal shops to identify potential problems with manpower, machines and methods, then worked to solve them at the point of impact.

They’re making progress. This includes an average material receipts improvement of 14-15% year-over-year, with the trend expected to increase by as much as 30% going into 2024. GE Aerospace’s rotating parts shop in Bromont, Quebec, performed even better, reducing finished goods inventory by 60% while improving part availability by 20%, much of which is attributed to the adoption of a “plan for every part” strategy.

Lean Rules

Yet, as Kauffman pointed out, there will come a day when the aerospace industry will no longer need to spend time addressing the post-pandemic supply chain recovery; instead, companies can focus more on growth and increasing efficiency. For GE Aerospace, the effort will be on lean principles and what Kauffman calls a model line.

“A model line is a production unit or cell within a plant that is under the direction and coaching of a master lean leader,” he explains. “Implementation starts with developing a value stream map, where you construct the cell, establish takt times and production cadence, set target OEE and other metrics, and then train the team to operate the cell.”

GE Aerospace began with a turbine blade model line at its Greenville, S.C. plant. It is now at 11 such lines, with plans to grow this to 15 by year-end and to transition to full-scale model plants beginning in 2024.

“Why are we doing this? I’ve been in the supply chain for nearly 29 years,” Kauffman says, “and can tell you that model lines greatly increase our ability to drive down lead times and working capital requirements while improving quality and reducing costs. The results are staggering.”

Supply chain successes aside, Kauffman points to the root cause of current difficulties, a problem only partially solved by lean efforts and investment in new systems. “When you pull the thread through almost everything, it almost invariably ends with labor—the ability to attract it, retain it and train it in time.”

An operator begins the depowdering process on a laser powder bed printer at Addman Engineering. (Provided by Addman Group)

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!

Dave Graves, vice president of new market development for the Diecast Division of Fort Laramie, Ohio-based Tooling Tech Group (TTG), has similar views. He explains that the 12-facility, 600-plus-employee organization is comprised of multiple engineer-to-order businesses and various disciplines, yet all revolve around the tooling sector with services ranging from high-pressure die casting and thermal forming to compression molding and high-speed stamping.

Much of TTG’s business comes from the automotive industry, but it also serves aerospace, appliance, marine and agricultural markets.

When asked whether the current supply chain woes are due to historical over reliance on offshore suppliers, erroneous trade policies or the COVID-19 pandemic, his answer was none of the above. “Those factors certainly contributed to the situation, but the bottom line is that the supply chain has long been fragile, which in itself is largely due to labor constraints.”

Supply chains are dependent on labor. Whether it’s the press brake operator that bends the part, the welder who joins it, the shipping clerk who loads it onto the truck or the driver who delivers it, all play a role in how long it takes to get a product, its quality, and how much it will ultimately cost. As a result, manufacturers everywhere struggle to reliably fulfill.

“We already had a skilled-labor shortage, but over the past two years, much of the workforce has either retired or simply disappeared,” Graves says. “Because of this, the industry has lost a lot of experienced people, which for us at least has made it harder to confirm that what we receive meets specifications, and that we get it on time.”

The situation has improved in recent months, but the lessons learned have forced TTG to reevaluate its daily activities. “Pretty much everything we need to build and deliver product is now available, but lead times can still be random and unpredictable, so we have to be really careful when quoting,” asserts Project Engineer Tim Stallman. “You have to tell the customer what to expect and where everything is coming from, because it’s some of the most obscure items creating the biggest headaches,” he adds, laughing. “We needed a very expensive drill motor for a project recently, but when we told the buyer it would take four months, he sent us an ad for a DeWalt cordless drill from Home Depot and said, ‘Here, go get one of these.’ Because of events like this, project management is crucial, with timely and frequent follow-up on critical path items.”

Integrate or Die

Like a growing number of businesses, TTG is the result of multiple acquisitions. This began in 2014 with the compression and thermoforming division of the same name. Since then, the company has added Majestic Industries, GH Tool and Mold, Century Tool and Gage, Alpha Integration and others, each strengthening the links in its supply chain by reducing the need to outsource services or purchase manufactured products from external suppliers.

“As you can imagine, integrating seven business units into one wasn’t easy... the synergies we’ve developed as a result have not only reduced risk, but provided many opportunities for cost savings, shorter lead times and additional customers,” Graves says.

Purdue Boilermakers fan Bob Markley shares a similar story. The Executive Vice President for Addman Engineering LLC in Fort Myers, Fla., Markley represents one member of an eclectic group of manufacturers, including Castheon (metal additive), Dinsmore (polymer 3D printing), Harbec (plastic injection molding) and Addman Precision (metal additive and CNC machining).

By combining these diverse manufacturing capabilities under one corporate umbrella, Addman Group has practically guaranteed vertical integration. “With seven locations across the U.S. and the robust supply chain we developed as a result of the acquisitions, we can produce most anything that comes our way,” Markley says. “Yes, there are a few things we can’t make in-house, but we have experienced and well-vetted outside sources for those.”

Addman Group’s motto of “any part, any volume, every step of the way” would have been an improbable goal even a decade ago when Markley founded 3rd Dimension Industrial Printing (which became Addman Engineering as part of the 2021 merger). Yet the widespread adoption and ongoing development of metal additive manufacturing (AM)—a technology largely in its infancy at that time—has put weight behind those words.

Beyond the Print

Here, more than any other manufacturing technology, is where vertical integration becomes critical, he says. “Nearly everything we print needs some level of CNC machining, whether that’s tapping threads, boring holes or milling surfaces. By integrating our metal-printing capabilities with traditional CNC equipment, we provide value to ourselves and our customers alike, since it helps to reduce traditional supply chain challenges,” Markley says. “One of my guys likes to say it’s the ‘one-throat-to-choke’ principle. And he’s right. At the end of the day, it’s Addman Engineering taking full responsibility, not a slew of vendors pointing fingers at each other.”

Meeting this responsibility means strict control over every step in the manufacturing process, he adds. This starts by giving customers the advice needed for a successful design. “There’s much more to it than the actual printing, which is where so many in this industry place all their focus. We produce the part in its entirety, covering any required secondaries such as heat treating, coatings and nondestructive testing. Because we optimize the complete process, we can consistently deliver high-quality products without surprises.”

The Golden Screw

Markley says most of what he and his team produce is for clean-sheet programs as opposed to replacement or maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) parts. “The reality is that certifying bodies are still quite expensive, so it’s generally easier to get in on the front end of the design as opposed to aftermarket or end-of-life parts for aerospace or highly regulated industries.”

Pellets cost up to 10x less, can be printed up to 10x faster than similar filament materials and are available in 100s of grades including high-performance and custom formulations. (Provided by 3D Systems)

That’s a shame, as there are few areas within the aerospace and defense community where the fast turnaround assured by an efficient supply chain is more necessary than with MRO. Yet, as Mike Shepard explains, that need is often overridden by the industry’s stringent qualification requirements. “Let’s say you have a mission-critical platform that’s jammed up due to a missing part. It might be a perfect application for additive, but from an engineering perspective, the design and manufacturing methods were buttoned up years or even decades ago. In these instances, there’s often little choice but to stick with the legacy processes.”

Shepard is the vice president of the Aerospace and Defense Segment at 3D Systems Corp., Rock Hill, S.C., and once worked for the Air Force Research Laboratory. He says it’s crucial to pick your additive battles in this space and look for the “golden screws” that, A) are good candidates for 3D printing, and B) will go through the validation and certification processes with minimal delays.

“As a result of these hurdles, we see that most of the additive use in this space is the printing of jigs, fixtures and work aids of all kinds,” Shepard says. “This delivers tremendous value without creating a large engineering burden and associated cost. Further, we expect that robotic pellet extrusion, which uses injection-molding feedstocks rather than more expensive filament—as with fused deposition modeling—will open this door even further.”

What does 3D printing have to do with the supply chain? Not much currently. But as Shepard, Markley and many others will attest, the ability to produce highly complex components from a single piece of metal eliminates the need for welding or brazing, while significantly reducing part count. That’s excellent news for rocket designers and gas turbine manufacturers aiming to lightweight and strengthen their wares; it’s equally important to those seeking a streamlined supply chain, who would otherwise have to procure dozens or perhaps hundreds of parts from a network of suppliers, each with multiple operations and the associated potential for delay.

Not Quite the Battlefield

Another way to shorten the supply chain is to bring manufacturing closer to the point of use. This approach presents numerous benefits, lower transportation costs and a commensurately smaller carbon footprint among them. But for soldiers at war, quickly getting replacement parts could avoid the loss of life and equipment. This helps explain why the United States Navy and Army are exploring the use of 3D printers and other advanced forms of manufacturing at or near their theaters of operation.

And while Shepard isn’t quite ready to use the term “battlefield printing,” he is very comfortable saying “forward-deployed logistics.”

“There’s a lot of energy around this topic, as well as the development of so-called makerspaces, where you can leverage local innovation at military installations close to the point of need. Doing so presents some very exciting possibilities.”

Brian Schmidt is the director of laboratory operations and a program manager at the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining in Huntsville, Ala. He’s as interested as Shepard is in the U.S. military maintaining its battle readiness. As part of NCDMM, however, he takes a different approach.

“We are attempting to inject advanced manufacturing technology into what I’ll call lagging industries within our supply chain,” Schmidt explains. “That involves embracing and understanding barriers to entry of adoption. So not only are we identifying technologies that are applicable to different supply chains, we are performing manufacturing readiness assessments and providing an understanding of the business case associated with adoption or lack of adoption to the companies and people within them.”

The metal casting process remains much as it has for millennia. NCDMM is working to bring it into the 21st century. (Provided by NCDMM)

A Helping Hand

Long story short, Schmidt and NCDMM are laser-focused on getting the U.S. manufacturing base up to speed. They are visiting and working with defense OEMs and their tier suppliers. They are introducing them to AM, automation, design optimization, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and all of the other industry buzzwords. And they are helping decision makers at these companies understand why and how to implement these technologies.

In one example, NCDMM is working with a casting house attempting to upgrade its decades-old “artisan style of manufacturing” to one that is more digital, repeatable and well documented. One of the first steps has been to develop and install disposable sensors inside the sand bed, which are used to capture mold temperatures, pouring pressure and similar casting variables in order to better understand what has long relied on tribal knowledge and a certain amount of educated guesswork. This will hopefully provide greater visibility and eliminate the question, “Did we get a good one?” before separating the drag from the cope.

“If we can create a digital TDP (technical data package) that includes all of these process-specific parameters, we can then transfer that knowledge to other facilities, bolstering our national manufacturing capabilities in an industry that is rapidly dwindling,” Schmidt says.

There’s much more to NCDMM’s efforts than taking apart the manufacturing watch, though. Shops wishing to adopt advanced technologies need more than a big pile of cash and the willingness to spend it; they need knowledge, and above all, the right attitude.

“Many of our country’s small- and medium-sized businesses have not transitioned to what I consider a modern manufacturing mindset,” Schmidt says. “This is mainly because they don’t have the human or financial resources to go out and get the information needed to provide a comfort level with the adoption of the target technology, whatever it is. In addition, there are generational challenges as many of the older owners and C-suite retire, and those coming out of school attempt to get into the workforce.

“It’s an alignment issue that requires training and education on both sides,” he continues. “That’s a big part of our job here; providing the advanced technology awareness training for these manufacturing companies to succeed is crucial to our future aerospace and defense supply chain.”

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