James Careless discovers how 25 years on, productivity improvements continue to drive the Bombardier CRJ aircraft production, to the point where it has become an internal benchmark for its other aircraft production lines to learn from.
1992 was the year that the first Bombardier CRJ passenger aircraft went into service. That first 50-seat CRJ100 went to Lufthansa CityLine, the German commercial carrier’s regional airline. It began regular service between Cologne, Germany and Barcelona, Spain on November 1, 1992.
Since that date, Bombardier has received firm orders for over 1,900 CRJs in total. At the same time, the CRJ family of regional jets has grown. The original CRJ100s and CRJ200s (the CRJ200 having a more powerful engine) have been joined by the CRJ700 (70 seats), the CRJ900 (90 seats) and the CRJ1000 (100 seats). Today, the CRJ700, CRJ900, and CRJ1000 are all produced together at Bombardier’s factory in Mirabel, a northern suburb of Montreal, Quebec.
With Bombardier now focused on building its next generation C Series CS100/CS300 passenger jets, the CRJ Final Assembly Line (FAL) Mirabel has not been attracting much attention in recent years. But despite the lack of publicity, Bombardier is continuing to refine and streamline its CRJ production process.
A case in point: “Over the last ten years we have reduced the CRJ’s production footprint (the amount of space needed for final assembly of the aircraft, including wing fabrication, fuselage assembly, and final wing/fuselage integration and finishing) by 64%,” states Jean-Francois Guay, Director of Bombardier Aerospace’s CRJ Programme. “We’re still building the same number of CRJ aircraft – we have not reduced our production capability of over 50 CRJ aircraft a year– but a 64% smaller footprint.”
How Bombardier has done it
Cutting the CRJ FAL’s footprint by two-thirds (thus freeing up space for C Series assembly in the same space) has been achieved through a careful analysis of the CRJ manufacturing process. In doing this, “we were able to optimise the number of workstations required to build the aircraft,” says Guay.
This reduction was made possible by Bombardier consolidating the CRJ assembly stages into a tighter, more logical process. These improvements made it possible for one CRJ assembly position to handle the tasks that previously done at two or more positions.
These changes and many others are the result of implementing Bombardier’s Achieving Excellence System (AES) on the CRJ factory floor. AES is a continuous improvement, lean manufacturing philosophy that has driven improvements on the CRJ production line.
“With the AES as our management tool, we have addressed areas such as production hours, work planning per workstations, quality process improvements, increased performance management with our suppliers and parts delivery, visual management to ensure repeatability of the work on the production line, inventory management, and square footage usage,” Guay said.
The AES in action
According to Guay, Bombardier’s Achieving Excellence System consists of five elements associated with aircraft production. They are: Worker Health and Safety; Overall Quality Management; Productivity; Human Development; and Cost. Used as the basis of constant production monitoring, analysis, and improvements, the AES continues to enhance and simplify CRJ production while keeping costs under control and maintaining worker safety and motivation.
Here are some ways in which Bombardier has applied the AES to constantly improve the CRJ production line’s performance.
Since the CRJ FAL is just that – the final assembly line for the aircraft – it is vital that the parts and sub-sections being sent to the Mirabel plant are as free from defects and errors as possible. To make this happen, Bombardier has enacted a supplier quality monitoring program to ensure that everything arriving on the factory floor is truly ready for assembly and integration. This programme minimises production slowdowns and halts being caused by below-specification parts and systems coming in from external suppliers.
The company is applying the same stringent quality control standards and monitoring to everything produced within the factory; from the CRJ’s wings (which are manufactured on-site) to the completed aircraft themselves.
“We’ve got a good system in place to reduce what we refer to as Defects Per Unit, or DPUs,” Guay explains. “Over the last five years, we have reduced our DPUs by over 25%.” (When a quality issue is detected, a special ‘tag team’ is assigned to remedy it; leaving staff free to continue assembling CRJs and keep the line moving.)
Collectively, these improvements have allowed Bombardier to reduce what Guay terms: “delays to the Master Schedule”, moving CRJs down the line on time by a factor of 10. This results in far fewer instances of aircraft being towed from one station to the next before all work assigned to the previous station has been completed. This has improved the CRJ FAL’s overall productivity.
This manufacturer also monitors how well employees adhere to the hours assigned to each element of the production process, to prevent delays creeping into the schedule. As well, ‘backup staffing plans’ are maintained to ensure that positions manned by employees who don’t show up for work (for whatever reason) have access to alternate employees as needed.
To keep employees safe and healthy – and thus keep the CRJ production line rolling smoothly – Bombardier tracks and analyses accidents/incidents on an ongoing daily basis.
“For instance, in early 2017 we started to see a rise in the number of people walking under aircraft, which created an increased risk of incidents,” said Guay.
Using that daily data, Bombardier analysed the causes of these ‘risk of incidents’, came up with a policy to address it, and “within two months we stopped seeing these incidents occurring.” Over the last five years, proactive health and safety monitoring has reduced overall workplace accidents/incidents in the CRJ FAL by 60%.
Here’s a clever cost-control strategy: To reduce its inventory expenses and stock on hand, Bombardier has reworked the CRJ assembly process so that the most expensive elements (like engines) are installed as close to the end of the production line as possible; prior to delivery. Doing this reduces the amount of time that the company must keep high-priced parts in inventory, which minimises financing and storage costs. (Through improved processes, Bombardier has also reduced assembly time at the CRJ workstations wherever possible, again allowing inventory to be purchased later and inventoried for shorter periods of time.)
Finally, the single CRJ production line is capable of building CRJ700s, CRJ900s, and CRJ1000s in whatever combination best aligns with Bombardier’s order book. This eliminates the need for three separate lines – each with duplicate workstations, tooling, and personnel – and supports a flexible manufacturing approach that can adapt to customer demand.
All told, many years of constant improvement have made Bombardier’s CRJ FAL very efficient, highly productive, and truly cost-effective. This is why the company has not implemented many of the newer manufacturing equipment being used to build the C Series to also make CRJs.
“Due to the initiatives we have implemented under the AES to date, we wouldn’t experience a return on investment by adding these new technologies to the CRJ production line,” Guay concludes. “In fact, our CRJ production line has become an internal benchmark for our other aircraft production lines to strive for, and to learn from.”