Keeping quality and innovation upfront

Resisting the inexorable draw of manufacturing operations towards Asia requires continuous investment in UK PLC’s USPs argues Andy Spence, director of operations at SMMT Industry Forum.


Since my first foray into aerospace in 1999, implementing lean principles (then new to the sector) on behalf of the SBAC Industry Forum, I’ve worked with many manufacturers across multiple industries, from OEMs down to SMEs. Dipping in and out has given me an objective perspective on how the sector has evolved. 

Early on I was struck by what felt a conflicted quality management culture. There was great pride in a craft culture delivering high quality of products. Whilst it remains awe-inspiring to watch artisans in the very manual and traditional processes transform flat sheets of steel into complex forms, it was also concerning to see this level of reliance on individual skills, use of personal tools and lack of standardised work carried across the sectors processes. The reliance on First-Article Inspection at product launch, seemingly as a guarantor of future operational quality, with subsequent dependence on inspectors capturing defects was disquieting from an outsider viewpoint. Challenging this frequently led to the ‘no car-parks in the sky’ cliché being trotted out to explain why automotive best practice wouldn’t work.

There was also a sense that everything would just keep going, with healthy profitability. Deliveries focused on achieving standard hours rather than customer requirement and lower production volumes were quoted as a reason why customers 100% right first-time expectations were unattainable.

The horror of 9/11 shocked the sector and stalled growth. We began to see recognition that the current state wasn’t sustainable with Quality, Cost and Delivery becoming a demand, not an ask. The launch of the ADS SC21 (OE) programme and it’s adoption by several of the big players, provided the method for this industry-wide, right-first-time, customer-quality and delivery-performance drive. That it’s still running and evolving today is testament to its value. The Bronze award is now seen as a foundation point, with Silver matching broadly to customer base requirement. It’s been inspiring over the last three years to see manufacturing suppliers achieve and retain the SC21 Gold award, sustaining performance levels previously seen as unattainable. They show it is achievable and set the standard for other suppliers to match.

Whilst some have driven their own outstanding performance through continuous improvement, the sector culture is now being driven from the top down; to change from a culture of quality control and inspection to a requirement for quality assurance from the start. These beneficial developments were at least in part driven by incomers from automotive and other sectors that have long seen the benefit in preventing problems rather than fixing them later. The Primes and OEMs are also driving an understanding of the critical impact lower tier manufacturing can have, ultimately on aircraft safety.

Starting with Rolls-Royce from 2012, Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and Production Part Approval Processes (PPAP) have become a sector, and increasingly a contract, requirement. This approach, now supported by the AS9145 standard (and engine sector AS13100), will inexorably drive aerospace quality performance, reducing product and process risk to assure right first-time production with proven rate capability.

Similarly, supplier innovation in product, process and service is becoming a customer expectation to compete with the ever-intensifying magnetism of Asia. Organisations must differentiate themselves to establish compelling reasons for their customers to buy from them. To define this requires organisation-wide, deep strategic thinking. Building on the original SC21 programme the funded SC21 Competitiveness and Growth (C&G) programme really helps here, particularly for smaller organisations who may lack the capacity to do it unaided.

The impact of Covid across the three-year funded SC21 C&G programme has dramatically limited the opportunity for suppliers to implement the improvements they have identified. The programme is currently scheduled to run until March 2022. It is my belief that if UK government wishes to retain and grow a competitive aerospace supply chain it must continue to invest in the SC21 programme alongside other future thinking-funded activity such as Innovate. Innovation and digitisation will not deliver success without the competitiveness foundation that SC21 can deliver.



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