Engineering for Extreme Environments | Straight Talk

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How do you develop sustainable products for harsh conditions that must meet customer needs both today and decades from now? The key to success: a lean production system that maximizes performance and creativity across the enterprise—from the factory floor to the C-suite. 

By Hugh Clayton, Group Director of Engineering and Strategy, Meggitt 

We live in a rapidly changing world with ever increasing demands placed on us all to develop sustainable solutions – new technologies that will improve efficiency, protect the environment, enhance performance and lower operating costs. Standing still is not an option, and at Meggitt, innovation is central to everything we do, from product and system design to manufacturing and aftermarket support.  

Meggitt may not be a household name, but if you’re a frequent traveler, chances are that you’ve come across some of our equipment. That’s because some 73,000 aircraft rely on our critical components. For instance, while most passengers may never think about it, landing an aircraft safely on a handful of wheels is quite a feat. A passenger plane can weigh over 700 tons and comes to a stop in less than one kilometer. The temperature of the wheels and brakes surge from zero to 1800 degrees centigrade in a matter of seconds. That happens day after day, week after week, during the 15 million landings a year carried out by our brake customers. Our commitment to innovation and improvement ensures that our systems and solutions are the best in the industry, delivering a safe landing every time. And equally safe for the environment: our pioneering Ebrake eliminating the need for hydraulic fluids and the risk of leakage. 

Sustainable Products for Harsh Conditions  

And brakes our just the beginning. Our fire detection and suppression systems are rarely used but are vitally important if a fire occurs during flight. Our unique flow-metering design enables the slow and accurate release of a suppression agent. We are also developing green suppression materials, replacing halon gas with an environmentally friendly extinguishing agent.  

In fact, sustainability is at the core of our innovation activities, ensuring that we continue to optimize the size, weight and environmental impact of all our solutions and contribute responsibly to the future of sustainable aviation.  For example, we use innovative advanced composites to reduce weight and increase durability. We employ additive layer manufacturing for thermal solutions, enabling us to create unique designs capable of fitting the smallest available space envelope while delivering optimum performance. From optical sensing to battery solutions, we are constantly looking at ways to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint and make flying safer for all. 

Most of the time our technology goes unnoticed by our customers, which include the U.S. Department of Defense, Airbus, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. However, it has a significant impact—protecting not only those who fly on commercial airlines, but those who rely on the 22,000 military aircraft that use our systems. Recently, a U.S. military plane was able to fly safely home from the Middle East despite 22 bullet holes, thanks to our blast resistant fuel tanks. Meggitt’s fuel bladders are manufactured from a highly engineered, layered composite fabric, handmade and customized for each aircraft. If hit by a bullet, they rapidly self-seal, encasing holes in a rubber gel, suppressing the ignition source and stopping leakage.  

Simply put, we provide smart solutions for extreme environments—and that creates some singular and significant challenges. We have to engineer these components so that they perform optimally in extremes of temperature and altitude. Furthermore, given the long lead time in aircraft development, we must try to predict what products we need to build today to support and secure aircraft tomorrow. And we must do it all in as cost-effective a manner as possible. To guide ourselves in these efforts, we’ve adopted a proprietary production framework that we apply to all of our operations, from the boardroom to the shop floor. We are also taking advantage of rapidly advancing manufacturing technology, from 3D printing to “IoT” (Internet of Things) sensors, to increase productivity and quality.  

Solving Tomorrow’s Problems Today 

We are always designing for the future. Many of the pilots who will fly the aircraft we are building systems for have not been born yet. We have to understand the technology problems our customers will face two or three decades from now and determine how they can apply technology in ways that will work today and still be competitive in 20 years’ time. 

It’s a mixture of a science and an art. We spend much time thinking about what the economic and business drivers will be in the coming years. We consider the laws of physics. We imagine what the world will look like in 2040. It requires the input of those who are close to the customer and those who are close to the technology, a combination of people with strong analytical and technical skill sets and those who are imaginative and can talk through these things. It’s impossible to get the future precisely right, but with teamwork we are able to move confidently in the right direction. 

A Continuous Improvement Engine 

A big part of what enables us to do what we do is the Meggitt Production System, a group-wide business system based on lean methodology. It started off as a method to help people build things on the shop floor in a more standardized fashion, but given its success there, its use has been expanded across the whole company. 

Deployed in every factory and every function at all levels, MPS gives each and every one of us a set of tools to maximize performance and creativity, streamlining our efforts from the boardroom to the factory floor. It makes continuous improvement personal because it’s infinitely flexible: our people use it to target and solve any problem, big or small.  

On the factory floor, MPS ensures that everything is focused on supporting the “makers”—the people who assemble the systems and components we sell. We’re also putting it to work everywhere from engineering and procurement to sales, HR and finance. And we’re reaping the rewards: MPS is delivering better performance across all functions—safety, quality, delivery, inventory and productivity. 

As a result, leadership can switch from focusing on smoother operations to maximizing returns from trading assets and long-term business strategy 

Innovation Drivers 

It’s not just our products and solutions that we’re continually developing; we’re looking at how and where we do what we do.  

Tomorrow’s factories will be intelligent, highly responsive units—smart components 

will find their own way to becoming products, using the Internet of Things to talk to machines and people. Meggitt Modular Modifiable Manufacturing, or M4, is leading the revolution, turning traditional factory layout and flow on its head with a ground-breaking combination of present and future technology. 

M4 will enable us to make a wider variety of components in each factory, maximize use of all our state-of-the-art equipment and integrate new technologies when they come on stream. Big data, captured at each stage of manufacturing, will feed into improved assembly and design, taking each of our factories closer and closer to performance gold. 

One key example of this is our investment in our new Ansty Park supersite, a showcase for M4, that is scheduled to become fully operational by the end of 2020.  

Building a Better and Cheaper Product 

It’s incredibly hard, but so important, to differentiate yourself in advanced technology.

Our life-saving technologies are seemingly priceless. However, the market wants not only the best capabilities and performance, but also lower prices. So we also need technology that will enable us to be as productive as we can be.  

Today, 70 percent of our sales come from product categories where we are the leading supplier. We want to increase that to 80 percent. To do that, we must continue to work with our customers, understanding their needs, and utilizing MPS and M4 to enable our clear vision of “Enabling the Extraordinary: To Fly; To Power; To Live.” Our three core values—Teamwork, Integrity, Excellence—underpin our vision, bringing our teams together to research, develop and produce some of the best solutions available.  

The Takeaways 

Designing high-performance products that will be viable decades into the future is part science and part art, requiring the input of those who are close to the customer and those who are close to the technology. 

An enterprise-wide set of production tools and rules, based on lean methodology, not only streamlines work but also maximizes performance and creativity from the factory floor to the C-suite. 

In the connected factory of the future, the human workforce will be surrounded by such digital technology as adaptable, intelligent work benches; autonomous intelligent vehicles to provide sub-assemblies and component parts; and digital work instructions and smart tools.