"Every day I walk through aerospace history. And then try to shape its future."
How do you get the best out of people and technology at the same time? That’s the challenge that inspired biomedical engineer Charlton Johns to specialise in operations at Meggitt.
“There’s only one way to manufacture at the cutting edge and improve performance, day in day out. You’ve got to optimise everyone’s contribution and that means giving them the best tools and, crucially, the power to change things.”
About 45 years ago, the first carbon aircraft brakes were designed and manufactured at what is now a Meggitt factory in Coventry. Since then, the process has been painstakingly refined step by step.
It is enormously complex. To give just one example, during the chemical vapour infiltration process, a carefully balanced mix of three gases are forced through the carbon components to add density. The exact temperature and gas composition must be maintained at each stage so the molecules separate and deposit into the carbon matrix. If the temperature is too low, the gases blow straight over. Given temperatures range from about 1000–3000°C, keeping the level right at each stage is a huge challenge.
Today, Meggitt manufactures 6% of the carbon brakes for the original equipment market, 69% of the aftermarket and 25% of the military market. To join a business that invented and still leads such an important cutting-edge capability is extraordinary in itself. Every day I walk through aerospace history. But the fact that my first assignment here is to unpick that history and shape the future of carbon moulding takes the challenge to a whole new level.
In my first six months, I’ve been given several big projects to improve performance. Each was designed to give me an in-depth introduction to the overall process of manufacturing carbon brakes and through that to the Meggitt Production System—the group’s Lean business system.
My first project was to create a value stream map of the whole carbon brakes product line, reviewing every step in the manufacturing process. Where do the raw materials come from? And the supplier components? Who does what to them at each stage? It took two weeks to get the full answers, working with a team of 15 across sites in Akron, Ohio and Danville, Kentucky.
One of the big findings was the number of inefficiencies in the transfer of information and materials between our two main sites. There’s a hand-over of furnace tooling that gets built and rebuilt in a certain orientation, for example. But the two sites were handling the process differently, causing unnecessary additional work at each end.
After the project, I led a week-long kaizen to share our learnings. We had everyone, from the director of carbon operations to maintenance and health and safety people, as well as individuals from the factory floor. It was daunting but I’d had some outstanding communications and presentation training during the induction week In the end, I felt it was the best continuous improvement event I’d ever done.
It consisted of a process failure mode effects analysis (PFMEA), which deepened my understanding of the overall production process and highlighted smaller continuous improvement projects I could run myself. With so much energy harnessed in the plant, there are many layers of risk mitigation in terms of safety, process and materials. We broke down the production line into 29 unique steps in eight locations and analysed each one, scoring for severity, frequency and detection to create an overall risk score for each step. Once you’ve got all that, you can prioritise improvements.
A key finding was the variance in aspects of the carbon moulding. I was tasked with increasing overall efficiency in the area, while also decreasing ergonomic risk. It was an ideal challenge for me and it was selected as part of my formal Lean Six Sigma training.
After the initial evaluation, I worked with the accounting team to estimate potential cost savings. We then used a range of classic Lean tools adapted for this process and location using MPS. They included 6S - a workplace organisation tool - time observations, spaghetti diagrams, standard work and process mapping. We also used studies on measurement systems and process stability. The lessons we learned in Akron - around tool storage for example - I took to the Kentucky site and lessons learned in Kentucky were applied in Akron.
I drew heavily on the experience when it came to teaching my first MPS class, another important part of the operations training here. Teaching immediately after learning deepens your own understanding dramatically.
In addition to these bigger projects, you’re also expected to start additional improvement initiatives as and when necessary. My MPS teaching on problem solving, for example, led to a project to reduce the maintenance cost of machining parts. On one of the machining chucks we use, carbon dust can wreak havoc on the internal mechanisms that tighten down the part in the machine. I facilitated a meeting with all parties involved and used the MPS tools to walk through the problem solving steps.
Other projects I’m leading now include site-wide initiatives to track and audit 6S as well as scoping procedures to limit foreign object damage, whether at general workstations or in a clean room environment.
I think the International Leadership Programme here is unique in that you get the opportunity to develop your skill and understanding on so many different live projects, many of them critical. A lot of that comes down to the size and flexibility of the group: it’s big enough to lead in a number of key capabilities worldwide but it’s small enough that you get to make a real difference yourself.
Precisely the reason I became an engineer in the first place.