Taking the Time to Dream Pays Big Dividends at Collins Aerospace

Sarfraz Nawaz
Vice President, Global Operations & Systems

(Published in Manufacturing Technology Insights magazine, February 2020)

Ever since Benjamin Franklin advised a young 18th Century tradesman that “time is money”1,2 —and probably even before that—leaders of successful business ventures have perpetually sought ways to compress the timeline between raw materials coming in and finished products going out.

Since the First Industrial Revolution, companies have continually trimmed that timeline through innumerable technological advances and innovative practices.

And today, in the midst of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”3 or Industry 4.04, with automation and digitization changing the business landscape around the globe, the goal for successful companies—from Amazon to Zappos—remains the same: deliver high-quality products to customers in the shortest amount of time.

At Collins Aerospace, we’re no different. We strive to design, manufacture and deliver the safest and highest quality products to our customers as quickly as possible. We’re constantly looking for ways to streamline our operations, increase efficiency and enhance productivity. And we are on the path to Industry 4.0, determined to modernize our manufacturing operations with the best solutions in robotics, digitization, analytics and artificial intelligence.

But unlike a lot of companies rushing full-speed ahead into modernization, we’re deliberately taking a slower, more holistic, more employee-focused approach to the transition—and it’s paying big dividends.

Speed Bumps Can Be a Good Thing

Collins has some unique characteristics that tend to work against speedy changes. As a $26 billion business born of several large mergers over just the past few years, Collins is still bringing together legacy organizations, systems and processes. We’re large (70,000-plus employees), we’re geographically dispersed (with nearly 300 sites around the world) and we’re diversified within the aerospace sector (with six strategic business units serving a wide range of commercial and military customers).

Plus, the very nature of our work—producing everything from flight controls to propellers to ejection seats—requires absolute precision to achieve our commitment to safety and quality. We must meet exacting specifications and comply with regulations that differ in various parts of the world. Making changes to our manufacturing processes requires not just finding and implementing the best new technologies, but also getting approvals from the various aviation authorities in the 20-plus countries where we have a presence.

In addition, we’re a long-cycle business. Our products last for decades and the parts that keep them running must be available for that same timespan. The machines we use to make those parts are big and expensive and built to last, further reducing the speed with which you can introduce change.

Yet, we have still found ways to make significant forward progress, thanks to our employees’ perseverance, ingenuity and imagination.

A Team Dream in Puerto Rico

Our smart line facility in Puerto Rico is a case in point. The 30-year-old operation produces printed circuit boards for commercial aviation. Though the building was not damaged in the storm as a result of Hurricane Maria, we saw an opportunity to modernize the operation, while also renewing our commitment to employment on the island.

We began by forming a diverse team of employees—including operators, technicians, engineers, supervisors and others—and we asked them to dream. BIG. What would the ideal manufacturing environment look like? How could we incorporate new technologies? How can we increase efficiency and productivity?

The team was excited to participate and offered many outstanding ideas. We determined that reducing the handling of materials from station to station, automating inspections, and getting real-time feedback on soldering and other applications would be the most valuable changes. In addition, some of the technology enhancements also frees up our people to be focused on the aspects that can’t be automated—like problem solving.

Since we opened our smart line operation in October, this team has cut lead time for boards from 18 days to 8 and increased production.

But the value of this transformation goes beyond these statistics. Our employees have seen first-hand how good ideas become a reality at Collins and they continue to dream up new ways to optimize our operations.

A New Model in Wroclaw

Our Wroclaw, Poland, facility is also being transformed through the power of our employees’ ideas.

On the machining shop floor of this large facility, we produce parts from 12 different lines, including housings for fuel control systems, parts for air management systems in addition to six assembly and test lines for air valves, actuators and air turbine starters. Many of these parts are cut from metal, but different types—aluminum, steel, titanium—and each requires different processes. We have over 200 individual workstations supporting this activity, some manual and some automated. And to add to the complexity, some parts need to go through 10 or 20 different operations, being transported from workstation to workstation.

When we analyzed this situation to try to achieve greater efficiency, the task of transporting parts was an obvious place to start when we made the decision to introduce a robotic solution to this facility.

Our employees immediately recognized the value of having a robot—rather than a human—carrying and tracking parts from point to point throughout the huge shop floor. The parts arrive at the right workstation at the right time, so there is less downtime on the line; plus, the robot carries the parts securely and in exactly the same way, reducing the risk of injury to our employees or part damage in transit, which means less waste; and most importantly, our employees are free to do the high value work that only humans can do.

Having successfully introduced one robot to the Wroclaw line, we’re looking at ways to take the best practices from this project into future projects.

Further, the Wroclaw site will serve as the model for all Collins’ manufacturing facilities around the world as we execute our 5-year plan to automate 10 percent of our manufacturing by 2024.

Our steady, measured progress toward that ultimate transformation has enabled us to make good decisions, avoid mistakes, and incorporate the best ideas of our employees.

So, with all due respect to Benjamin Franklin, sometimes time is not money. Sometimes it’s an investment in a better outcome.

1. Franklin, Benjamin. “Advice to a Young Tradesman”

2. Fisher, George. “The American Instructor: or Young Man’s Best Companion”

3. Schwab, Klaus. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”

4. Kagermann, Henning.