Eclipse Aviation turns to the automotive industry for inspiration in mass producing jets

Part of Eclipse's challenge is to create a predictable production system with repeatable processes that places much more responsibility on suppliers than aircraft programs historically have -- not unlike what Boeing is attempting to do with its new 787 airliner. (That too is a work in progress.) The Eclipse 500's wings come from Japan, the nose from Chile, the engines and landing gear from Canada, the tail from the U.K. and the windshield from the U.S. All the pieces are shipped to Albuquerque and assembled by Eclipse. Raburn says the "vast majority" of his suppliers are on schedule and cost. But "some took the attitude, 'Just build it, push it out the door and [Eclipse] will catch any problems at the factory.' That introduces massive inefficiencies to the supply chain."

The problems are hardly new. Five years ago, after the Eclipse 500's first flight, the company had to scrap the aircraft's original engine because of poor performance. Pratt & Whitney Canada was signed to develop the 900-lb.-thrust 610F, but the program was set back more than two years. Then early this year -- four months after the jet received FAA type certification -- Eclipse parted ways with its main avionics supplier, Avidyne, replacing the Massachusetts company with five new vendors for the jet's Avio Total Aircraft Integration System (AW&ST Mar. 19/26, p. 109).

"Those kind of changes will just wreak havoc on a supply chain, especially if you're trying to set up for a modular kind of build," says Pete Wiese, director of CSC Consulting's aerospace and defense practice. Raburn says Avidyne's performance was poor; Avidyne did not return calls seeking comment.

A recent visit to Eclipse's assembly facilities next to Albuquerque's airport yields signs of an operation that is getting its act together. More than 50 aircraft are in various stages of assembly, and the pace of deliveries unquestionably is speeding up.

To revamp its production processes, Eclipse sought help from experts in the hypercompetitive automotive industry. In March, it hired Todd Fierro, a seasoned plant manager at the Ford Motor Co., as vice president of manufacturing operations. Fierro quickly retained The Productivity Team (TPT), an industrial engineering consultancy that helps high-volume manufacturers apply Lean and Six Sigma principles to accelerate throughput and, as a by-product, improve quality. The second-largest firm of its kind in Detroit, TPT counts among its clients automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and many of their suppliers.

Following a three-month study of Eclipse's production operation, TPT concluded that much of the work it has done in the auto industry was immediately transferable, according to Steve Nolan, TPT's program manager-in-residence at Eclipse. "The goal is for Eclipse to deliver product quicker without ever losing sight that quality is paramount," he says.

Step One was to gain a full understanding of Eclipse's current production processes and identify constraints. The assembly floor was reconfigured to a linear flow model that involves kitting on two parallel production lines, versus the previous discontinued flow manufacturing Eclipse had been using. Revamped processes have been rolled out in phases and will continue to be introduced through the end of 2007. Aircraft fuselages move from one station to the next, with problems eliminated at the source or stopped from moving to the next work station.

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