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Efficiency Fuels Pratt & Whitney’s Hot Section Ramp Up

A look at how aerospace leader Pratt & Whitney combines innovation, quality assurance and plant floor efficiencies to better meet growing customer demands.

“Competition is positive,” states Pratt & Whitney’s Dave Bonsall. “It makes you think harder about things and ensures that you’re focused on the customer.” This type of attitude will be key as the company continues with a huge ramp-up focused on doubling production of their geared turbofan engine offerings by 2020. Stimulated by increased market demands related to upgrading aging aircraft fleets, the undertaking will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and impact the company’s Hot Section Facilities in West Palm Beach, FL, Middletown, NY, East Hartford, CT and Middletown, PA.

Pratt & Whitney generates over $14 billion in annual sales, working with global customers that include Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer and Mitsubishi. As part of their ongoing continuous improvement strategies, and embedded within this huge ramp-up, Pratt & Whitney is specifically focused on enhancing their integrated supply chain capacity, lean manufacturing initiatives and production readiness. In talking with Bonsall, it seems his team at the East Hartford facility has a unique history that should blend well in meeting these multi-faceted, competition-oriented goals.

Ready for Take Off

Bonsall serves as the general manager for P&W’s Hot Section Module Center for jet engines. The turbine blades and vanes produced in this 1,900-employee, 1.5 million square foot production center are used in the area of jet engine where fuel is introduced and combustion occurs. The nature of these components places demands on the development and implementation of processes that are simultaneously efficient and quality-focused.

“Aerospace is very cost-sensitive, but also in a constant state of innovation,” offers Bonsall. This translates to integrating lean production and material management approaches that mirror the demands of the market in terms of efficiency and cost effectiveness.

The approach taken by Bonsall and his team showcases both characteristics, as the East Hartford facility provides a unique distinction amongst P&W manufacturing locations. “Pratt & Whitney produces the most efficient turbine in the industry for handling heat,” states Bonsall. “Our Pennsylvania facility handles machining and finishing and a factory in New York handles coatings. Here in East Hartford we’ve been able to integrate production flows that allow us to leverage our expertise in handling both of these functions. We grind, drill, coat and finish at this facility.”

These capabilities will serve as a key component in P&W’s production ramp-up, and the competitive gains it entails. Not only does the precision and quality of the parts produced in East Hartford make the handling of both machining and coating impressive, but so does the breadth of work. Each of these production areas needs to be intimately familiar with the production and inspection of hundreds of part numbers with minute levels of differentiation.

Bonsall notes that having manufacturing and engineering housed within the same structure allows both sides to better understand the entire situation. This eases some of the strains associated with such intensive production demands, and the inevitable changes that occur. In the coatings sector alone, Bonsall estimates that one of the newly developed coatings machines in the East Hartford facility has gone from handling about 4,000 parts per year to over 100,000 per year. And these numbers will continue to climb.

“Our culture is one that embraces challenges and the opportunities they entail. The ramp-up will allow us to approach things differently, identify areas of improvement, and then incorporate those changes in a fresh environment,” states Bonsall.

Ground Controls

In order to reach their lofty production and quality requirements, Bonsall and his team have embraced P&W’s Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) program. “ACE is essentially our internal equivalent of TPS or Six Sigma,” explains Bonsall. “There’s a council within each business unit that works with the different segments to drive lean practices at every facet of production, through delivery.”

​HSMC implemented some unique inventory management practices that pushed it to silver ACE status in 2011, and followed that by instituting lean production processes that helped improve cost controls. Those accomplishments elevated the sector to gold status in 2013. Re-qualification is required every 18 months.

“One of ACE’s biggest benefits is that it pushes everyone to be constantly monitoring everything that is  coming in and going out of their production area to find better, leaner, more efficient processes,” states Bonsall. As a result of the lean culture fed by ACE, P&W employees, almost by default, are running simultaneous continuous improvement programs in inventory management, quality assurance, safety and production. 

Some examples of specific procedures brought upon by ACE initiatives have included:

  • Enabling one operator to manage several machining centers. Bonsall describes the metal fabrication portion of HSMC as a demand-based production cycle. So as orders fluctuate, the operator of multiple machines can manage production flow accordingly. This helps control labor and overhead costs while leveraging operator expertise in meeting quality levels.
  • Instituting a Standard Work in Progress approach helps ensure that the right parts, materials, tools or supplies are both located where the equipment operator is located and are replenished according to the schedule that individual has created. This establishes one standard that is easily repeatable, and therefore more efficient.
  • A well-organized production area with an abundance of visuals. Although vanes and blade production lines are distinctly located in unique rows separate from one another, they are in close proximity so data can be shared and changes can be made without impacting production flow.
  • Gemba walks: mixing data with reality. “We look at production data on an hourly basis in examining workflow and identifying potential issues,” states Bonsall. “We also build monthly plans and develop production schedules that mesh our production data with customer demands. This is combined with taking Gemba walks on the plant floor so we can actually see what’s going on with the people and the processes. This gives us a better feel on how things are moving and what our capacities are in handling more customized opportunities. We know from the data and from being on the floor exactly what we can handle and what the associated timeframe would be.” This also plays into P&W’s just-in-time inventory management approach.

Staying the Course

“Employees know that the things they make are important,” states Bonsall. “We focus on developing game-changing technology at Pratt & Whitney and we couldn’t do that without having empowered, well-trained employees.”

The global nature of P&W would seemingly make lower cost labor options in other countries somewhat attractive. Bonsall responds very plainly when asked why this much manufacturing remains in the U.S. – the need for a skilled workforce. He adds that United Technologies, P&W’s parent company, is very focused on employee training and education.

One standard practice that reinforces this focus involves a program where employees can rotate through different departments of the company. Options could include marketing, finance, operations, etc. The strategy focuses on giving employees a full complement of skills and contacts. It also protects against complacency and can serve as boost to individual and facility morale.

As the company and the East Hartford HSMC production staff look forward, they see a future loaded with change, expansion, innovation and growth. This is positive not only for Pratt & Whitney, but is indicative of how manufacturing in the U.S. can thrive. While not every manufacturer’s marketplace is directly comparable to the dynamics of the aerospace industry, every facility has employees that can be better trained and empowered to seek out and implement processes focused on continuous improvement. It’s this approach that is allowing P&W’s HSMC sector to not only embrace growth, but to have a foundation in place that will ensure its continued success.

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