Now, I've seen a few shopfloors in my time and invariably there will be one, perhaps two flatbed cutting machines lurking in a corner somewhere. One is probably enough; how many does one company actually need? Three? Four? Try six! Yes indeed, arranged and aligned with Lean manufacturing in mind, when it comes to kit cutting for the aerospace industry, Burnley's Velocity Composites is thinking big. Very big.
As a supplier of engineered material kits, Velocity Composites' aim is a simple one: to offer every material needed to build a component, from any supplier, in any form, delivered direct to the point of use. Tangible customer benefits include: waste reduction, scalability, material efficiency, repeatability and reduced process times.
Currently operating in the heart of the North West aerospace cluster, Velocity Composites has expanded its operations to include a new facility in Southampton, opening in early 2016, which will service its growing customer base in the South of the UK, as it transitions from a national, single site company to an international business with multiple sites.
Total kit provision
“We felt that the supply of composites materials needed to become more efficient and this is the reason why we set the company up with the aim of aggregating all that use of composites and production rates, and putting together and funnelling through one company that can handle any materials from any supplier, delivered lineside in the form of use that the customer needed it,” begins company director, Gerry Johnson. “We call this ‘total kit provision', i.e. everything the customer needs, when and where they need it. We provide any material from any source. ‘Engineered' is our byword and we really do add value. We're not a distributor that just handles the materials, we engineer them.
“We have strong relationships with our customers and whilst we can manage customers from afar, for structural material supply we need to be geographically close to them. That said, if key customers further afield are willing to engage with us, we'll establish a facility to serve them. We help reduce waste in all its forms: the material for efficiencies, the process whereby we give the customer ‘clever' kits which help to reduce their build times, and we also help reduce waste through variation by providing ‘static' kits that can only be built in a predetermined way.”
Darren Ingram's appointment as managing director is a key part of Velocity Composites' expansion plans as it signals a significant growth in the company, allowing the company's three directors – Chris Banks, Gerry Johnson and Jon Bridges – to focus on Velocity Composites' business strategy, customer relationships and growth.
“Our business model works very well,” he states. “It focuses on establishing close ties with our customers – not only through the business side, but also in terms of locations where we have key strategic customers with strong output requirements. This is the model we've established on the South Coast and the model we need to run as we move into Europe and the US. As these opportunities crystallise, so we'll start implementing this process business model by establishing manufacturing hubs located near the customer. Our Burnley facility will become the headquarters where procurement, invoicing and engineering will be managed from.
“If we take Velocity's business model from a customer's perspective, there are six key points we offer customers: inventory reduction; significant waste reduction; delivery to the point of use; standardised kits that reduce manufacturing process; removing the risk in terms of managing millions of pounds worth of inventory; value add through engineering the product.”
Cut to print
It's Ingram's view that companies invest a lot of time and effort looking at the layup process, the autoclave, the curing and the machining process, yet nobody puts the same focus on the exercise pre-layup. This is where Velocity Composites comes in. For the company, kitting is a separate entity where it puts in the same Lean emphasis pre layup, because there are significant benefits to be gained.
“Historically, it's been seen to be an acceptable level of waste in that the nature of working with composites involves cutting shapes out of material and throwing the rest away,” he continues. “This has almost been an accepted platform and companies then focus downstream from this. Where we have built our business model is to say that this front end is riddled with waste and actually there is a considerable amount that can be saved if we ‘engineer' the material rather than just consume it. We have wrapped an engineering function around what was historically deemed a ‘consumption' activity.”
Velocity Composites began in the North of England cluster by serving companies like Aircelle, BAE Systems, Kaman, Bombardier and Teledyne CML. The company predominantly builds kits for wings and aero engine assemblies, such as nacelles and air intakes, primary structural external panels and wing spars.
“A huge part of our business means satisfying aerospace approvals,” notes Johnson. “We possess the necessary tier 1/tier 2 approvals, but an important one for us was last July when we achieved full Airbus approval. This has generated a lot of interest. The next big approval we'll look to attain is Nadcap as this is mandated by certain suppliers. However, there isn't currently a Nadcap scheme that covers just what we do. Their Board has agreed to a scheme in place for kitting companies like us and we hope to be the first company to achieve this.”
Challenging times ahead
Over the coming years, the global aerospace composites industry is forecast to grow significantly and as such, Velocity Composites' customers face significant rate increases on both new and existing platforms. Ingram says it's vital that the company maintains its market leadership and focus on meeting the expectations of existing and new customers.
“Our customers are busy getting ready, so 2016 will be a very interesting year for the industry,” concludes Ingram. “The A320 and the A330 Classics will start to tail off, but performing build rates of around 60 aircraft a month for 2-3 years means the tier ones are starting to look at exactly the type of services we offer in order to be ready and able to handle this workload.
“I see 2016 as a transitional year for many of our customers and this will be the year we get prepared to handle the ramp-up coming in 2017-2021. I'm very optimistic for the next five years. 2016 is very much about the fuse being lit and everyone standing back. 2017 is when the fireworks are going to go off. The smart players will be using 2016 as the year to get ready for what will be coming up.”