My observations this month surround two different assembly lines that I’ve witnessed recently. In November I visited Eurocopter’s Marignane sprawling headquarters complex outside of Marseille in the south of France. A month before I’d been to Boeing’s Ridley Park facility outside of Philadelphia. The immediate impression that was made upon me was the difference in assembly method between the two lines, due largely to volume of order and customer profile of each aircraft type.
The Super Puma assembly technique in Marignane involved the helicopter, for the most part, staying static and engineering teams working around it. With an aircraft such as the versions encompassed in the Super Puma family, orders tend to be from a wide variety of customers but in volumes from single aircraft up to some that are into double figures. So when an aircraft needs a unique modification, the specialists come to it and fit the mod. The parts system is still centralized where engineers go and ask for the items they require and there seems to be a busy, almost cluttered hive of activity around each aircraft. But then with so many modifications that continually need to be done according to customer requirements, the ability to standardize this system into a pulse line seems limited. However, it does allow Eurocopter to be flexible and adaptive towards individual customer needs, however big or small they might be.
The opposite is true at Boeing’s Ridley Park facility. With a single big customer that is the U.S. Army, it has been possible to lean and pulse-line helicopter production and the process surrounding it. If you are building so many aircraft the same, great economies can be made although even here, extra modifications have to be done to the completed aircraft at a different location. However, there was something very impressive about the focus on point of use where the exact location of different services, tools, skills and people are located around the circumference of the aircraft:
• <100 feet—tools, parts, test equipment and inspectors;
• <200 feet—team areas, feeder areas, support personnel, lockers and break areas;
• <300 feet – ITPs, deliveries, training, build-up, assemblies and so on.
I’m not saying that this was not present at the Eurocopter facility, it’s just an observation that its U.S. counterpart—admittedly thanks to a recent multi-million dollar facility redesign—seemed to have its working area around the aircraft more ordered.
This does not mean that Eurocopter hasn’t been modernizing, or doesn’t believe in pulse lines. Far from it—in many ways it’s down to a numbers game. However, having just seen its newly completed logistics center, with automated warehouse, it must be said that it is of a level of size in both actual space and volume of parts handled that is scarcely, if ever, seen outside of the U.S. in this business. It is almost how a Hollywood film would portray an automated industrial facility of the future—clean, always moving, relentless. And this is going to be, indeed already is, a tremendous advantage in the battle to keep customers happy and shortening the downtime of their precious rotary assets. Time is money—and the faster a spare or replacement part gets to where it is needed, the happier the customer. In today’s harsh economic environment, that will count more than ever.