Out of the Future, on to a Plane
In his four nine-month assignments, Matt Scovell lived and breathed cutting-edge in every domain: individual products, complex systems, factories and programmes. “It’s been the best introduction I could have had to commercialising new technology in aerospace. Can’t wait to see how the story unfolds from here.”
Buying a second hand car in Cleveland, Ohio … I joke, but moving every nine months was my biggest test. Repeatedly getting confident in one role before downing tools, handing over and setting off on a new adventure is tough. You have to step into the unknown again and again to build relationships with new people and learn about new technology and processes. The engineering is the easy bit—I do that for fun.
Energy, enthusiasm and lots of questions. Plus a long-term view: you’ve got to remember that this broad array of experience is the foundation for a lifetime’s work. The great thing is there are people around you that can help—it’s a team game. The first line of defence is your fellow graduates; the second, your mentors, experienced individuals who help you build your professional skills.
Exploring how to grow and commercialise our capability in metal additive layer manufacturing. It was 2014 and there was a lot of talk about ALM but not much action, certainly in aerospace.
We needed a product to showcase what could be done—something knock-out but realistic. We had to convince our CEO and CFO to invest and convince our customers that we are a force to be reckoned with. That brief was given to graduates the year before I joined. Working with our CTO, they decided on a redesign of a jet engine air bleed valve.
High pressure air travelling through conventional bleed air valves is one of the biggest causes of noise at landing and take-off. Creating a quieter valve will improve life for millions of people around the globe living near airports and could help smooth the way for airport expansion.
Designing a quiet valve isn’t too hard but conventional design and manufacture would make it big and heavy, therefore unsuitable for aircraft.
As a team of three graduates, we developed an ALM design based on a fir cone which not only cuts noise but is also lighter and has fewer parts.
The programme has given me a full introduction into making the latest new technology profitable. Totally fascinating.
Knockout! Our design was taken to a series of executive leadership meetings that lead to a $1m investment in a Meggitt additive manufacturing facility in California.
For me personally, it was the best insight possible into how you bring a new technology into the aerospace sector, not just at Meggitt but more broadly. Unusually for a research project, there was a lot of customer contact, meetings at a high-level about once a month. And as the customer was GE, that was a pretty good introduction.
I was very fortunate to get involved with Meggitt’s first major digital manufacturing research project, known as Meggitt Modular Modifiable Manufacturing (M4). Work started on the three-year initiative in 2014, in partnership with the UK government’s Aerospace Technology Institute, we worked with IBM, the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the Manufacturing Technology Centre.
My role was to review current manufacturing processes. I visited three Meggitt factories and looked at three products, exploring how they could be designed and manufactured more efficiently and profitably in a digital factory.
One of my toughest challenges was to work with our operational leaders, manufacturing experts and the software engineers from IBM and gather every possible piece of data about a particular product. Nothing too complex in the first instance—a heat exchanger with only a few moving parts.
But at every stage of production, we needed to establish who does what to it, where, and how long it takes. The result was an increase in data by a factor of a million. However, data on its own is noise. Using it to enable decision-making is the next step and that’s what we’re working on now. The ultimate destination is full factory autonomy—a self-governing system that can identify and solve its own problems. That really will require some smart engineers!
Traditional Lean thinking tells you that production lines should follow a logical sequence of building a product, step by step. But that’s not always the most efficient use of resources. Our M4 research suggests that the more competitive solution is to use common resources for a mixed flow line which is rich in sensing and applies advanced software algorithms. Selling the power of these solutions to our team of lean experts wasn’t easy, but combining ideas and processes from our different worlds brought out the most innovative thinking.
Two years later, our first digital assembly line powered up. I still pass through that site and it’s amazing to see the fruit of our labour in action.
My last assignment has been a real test for precisely that reason. It was my non-technical placement and I have been working with the Group Vice President of Programme Management. My brief was aligned with our strategic goals around competitiveness, technology and customers: I helped evolve the processes and working practices that maximise return on investment as we deliver the cutting-edge technology that keeps our customers delighted.
On a typical technical R&D project, you can see pretty clearly what you have to do most days. If your work isn’t up to scratch, it shows up fast. You’re constantly on the hook and that’s very motivating! Here, I was given my brief two months before I started and I could see where I had to be in a year.
I had to work out how to get there, who I needed to talk to and then get on with it. I’d meet my manager once a week and had one other close colleague. There was no immediate sense of urgency but it’s the biggest responsibility I’ve had so far. And as the delivery date grew nearer, the pressure was intense.
It’s a very tough mindset to get into and I’m not sure I’ve got my head round it yet. But I’m surrounded by great people who have a vested interest in my success. That’s very reassuring.
I’m looking at opportunities across the group. Some have emerged as a direct result of my assignments and some through connections I have made along the way. All I know so far is that it will be another challenging and stretching role at Meggitt.
Onwards and Upwards
If you keep delivering, so does the Meggitt fast-track. There are always more opportunities ahead.
Talking to Karl Elkjaer, one of the first engineers on the programme, we find out about his last two placements and how he’s now combining his talents for operational excellence, technical troubleshooting and product development.
I had some fascinating challenges. How do you reduce braking noise on a business jet, for example? The answer we developed there was to change the geometry of the brake discs so you’re hitting non-audible frequencies.
Aircraft manufacturers are always looking for ways to reduce noise pollution and emissions. One of our customers asked us how we would integrate an electric taxiing system into an aircraft’s wheels so there’s no need to use the main engines when manoeuvring a large passenger jet around an airport.
Inside an aircraft wheel hub is a pretty extreme environment for an electric motor—big changes in temperature, highly corrosive because of all the de-icing fluid on the runway plus very limited space. It was a great challenge to be involved with.
I also looked at an electronic replacement for brake wear pins. Mechanical pins need mechanics to check them so that adds maintenance time. A digital device using laser or ultrasound can trigger a cockpit indicator as soon as the discs need replacing.
I love these problems. You have to gather the information you need from experts all round the business and then do some intense thinking yourself before you present what you’ve found.
You can’t really understand one without the other. So it’s a good discipline for all engineers. In my final placement, I was responsible for launching the Meggitt Production System (MPS) in our Danish facility.
We’re about 100 people in total so not as large as some factories in the group but for six months I was solely responsible, working with the production managers, gaining their respect and selling in MPS. Like any big change, it needed careful selling. I liked that combination of process and people and realised I had a real talent for it.
Some teams picked up MPS quickly. Elsewhere the short-term gain was less obvious so we had to tailor things. I worked with the group MPS leads to adapt the system for Denmark. That meant negotiating how we use standard work, for example, and the supplier toolset as well as what we call daily layered accountability—the series of interlocking meetings we use to maximise continuous improvement.
Sometimes the view from the top is that DLA boards—the displays we use for tracking live operational issues and metrics—should be designed primarily with management in mind. But I believe the most important thing is that the employees use it to identify issues and solve them in good order.
Getting buy-in for change from the factory floor is the key to success so I worked hard to adapt our DLA boards to reflect that
Yes, I’m really enjoying the sense of progress and achievement. The priority now is on reducing arrears and improving on-time-delivery. We’ve just introduced a new operations DLA board to help do that.
It adds a new layer of scrutiny between the production cells and the site overview. Now that MPS has matured to cover the commercial functions as well as operations, the site level board focuses more on overall business issues and metrics. Our new board takes some of the more detailed operations KPIs that were on the site level board before.
Decreasing customer returns is always a priority and I really enjoy this kind of detective work. Our piezoceramic components are used in some extraordinary ways—in sensors to test pressure and vibration in aero engines and industrial gas turbines, for example. And for underwater sonar for trawlers tracking fish shoals, as well as sea bed mapping plus medical and cosmetic treatments.
One of our underwater acoustics customers reported some faulty products and I led the investigation to find out what was going on, analysing furnace data and brainstorming with a team internally. We found that a furnace that had been opened too soon caused internal cracking in the piezoceramic plates.
Sometimes the solutions are simpler but you have to know where to look. A lot of engineers and academics tend to overcomplicate things as they don’t ask the people doing the assembly work. But they’re often the best source. For example, we were getting too much scratching on our shear tube product line. Working with the operators, we figured out that changing the holder during polishing fixed the problem.
I’ve just started mentoring an engineer who began on the graduate programme this year. I’ll be coaching him through to becoming a chartered engineer. I’m about to qualify so I know exactly what you need. For me it’s great as it cements my learning and it’s very satisfying helping someone else through the process.
Looking ahead, I’d like to get more involved in business development. It’ll be a new area for me but given the breadth of my experience working with different customers and the range of applications our technology has, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of opportunities coming up.
Out of the Lab, Into the Factory
Extreme environment engineering requires a complex combination of cutting-edge research and smart industrialisation.
“It’s fast and it’s demanding,” says Maxime Dempah, “But if you really want to push yourself as an engineer technically and commercially, Meggitt is the place.”
I loved my time at university. I was in a new country, at one of the best places in the world to study composites. I grew massively as a result, both as an engineer and as a person. I wanted to find that same experience in my first job. I could have found something safe in my field but I feel more alive when I’ve got something new to tackle.
I’ve just finished the International Leadership Programme (ILP) here and I’ve definitely made the big leaps I’d hoped for.
Take my first placement, for example. Tomorrow’s aircraft, like Lockheed’s SR-72 concept, could eventually fly at Mach 6 (4,500 mph). And that of course means higher temperatures and pressures than ever.
To meet flammability tests on these next-generation aircraft, some of our composites have to withstand temperatures up to 1,100°C for short periods. But continuous use, hour after hour, is another matter, even at lower temperatures. My job was to find and develop a relationship with a suitable academic partner and create a new material with superior thermal resistance and structural properties.
Working with a team at Georgia Tech, we successfully evaluated a new composite for continuous 700°C heat. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to meet all the desired properties. But three years later, during my final placement on the ILP, I was able to put this experience to good use working on a ceramics matrix composite for high temperature systems. They are low weight compared with metals and often offer a temperature resistance up to 2,000°C.
That’s how R&D works in aerospace. You might not get it right first time but if you keep focused, stay on top of market developments and work with leaders in the field, you get there.
For my third placement I moved to a Meggitt company in the UK. The role was similar—evaluate, design, build, test—but the technology totally different. I joined a group-wide initiative to develop an advanced heat exchanger for aerospace using a pioneering etched plate additive layer manufacturing (ALM) technique.
I worked on a third-party ultrasonic diffusion bonding technique that allows manufacture from aluminium, the ideal choice for its strength-to-weight ratio. A prototype was developed by a fellow trainee. It’s now in testing and could potentially give us a competitive edge in this area for many years to come.
For me, it’s this kind of opportunity that makes the programme stand out. Meggitt is always looking for ways to build on the latest research and take the technology to the next level. On the ILP, you’re tasked with making that happen. It’s the perfect way to explore what’s on offer across the business and decide where you want to take your career.
Explore Monday, learn Tuesday, develop Wednesday, test Thursday, deliver Friday. That’s my perfect week. At Meggitt, I get it month in, month out.
Meggitt is a very dynamic business, too, so there are always interesting commercial opportunities to learn from. In my fourth placement I worked on the acquisition of two advanced composites businesses from global aerospace leaders.
Working with the integration director, my first task was preparing and implementing a 90-day action plan to ensure business continuity post-acquisition. We had a spreadsheet with around 20,000 essential actions across all the key functions—from HR and finance to engineering and procurement.
Acquisitions always bring uncertainty so good communication is critical for a smooth transition—that’s easy to say but to get it right requires a complex combination of imagination, focus and emotional intelligence. I was way out of my comfort zone but I learned fast.
Then, just months into the process, I was asked to lead a team of engineers from both sides of the newly integrated business to develop a new material for our next generation of radomes. It was a $250,000 project and we had a prototype within four months. The budget has now doubled and the materials are undergoing tests to obtain certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We could have a product on the market within months.
Now I’ve finished the programme, I’m even more impressed with how carefully it was put together. Take the Chartered Engineering qualification, for example. That’s useful for professional development in itself, clearly. But writing quarterly reports and discussing them with your mentor is the perfect way to develop an ability to self-evaluate.
Then there’s moving to different sites—sometimes different countries—every nine months, plus the extraordinary exposure you get to senior management throughout. I now meet senior buyers and vice-presidents when I visit customers. Working with Meggitt leaders for three years has given me the experience I need to meet them with confidence and adapt quickly wherever I am.
But perhaps most importantly of all, there’s a constant expectation that as you develop your skills, you’re also thinking about the next stage. Where are the opportunities—in the market and within the business? What technologies will give us an edge with customers?
When it comes to finding your first permanent role, you draw on the whole of your three years’ training—what you did and who you worked with—to pin down what you’d like and what’s possible.
I wanted to continue with new product development and the supply strategy work I’d done and I’ve found a role which combines the two: I oversee the majority of new technologies in composites as lead engineer for Applied Research and Technology in the polymers and composites division and I’m also helping to evolve the engineering services division across all our product lines.
The pace is just as fast, if not faster, than during the programme. And looking ahead over the next three to five years, I’m confident that will continue. The challenges and opportunities are here, the support and mentoring are excellent and there’s something new to tackle, literally every day.
Constant change isn’t for everyone but I couldn’t live without it.
Challenging Projects, Brilliant Engineers, Bright Prospects
From the wingtips of the Joint Strike Fighter to the pyramid in front of the Louvre, Meggitt sensors detect tiny movements with the greatest accuracy. As the demand for lighter, smaller and simpler sensors grows, the opportunities for micro-engineers are exploding.
Blaise Guélat got the chance to put his learning into practice and design his first product as soon as he arrived at Meggitt.
As soon as I started my first placement, I was given the challenge of designing a microelectromechanical (MEMS)-based tilt sensor. They’re mainly used in train control and positioning systems to maximise capacity and uptime for operators and they’re also used in the test industry.
The work I led enabled us to reduce the sensing element from about 5×4cms to a few millimetres square. We successfully reapplied Meggitt’s pioneering digital compensation technology to ensure worldbeating accuracy: maximum scale factor non-linearity error on the finished product is less than 0.05%.
Overall, it was a brilliant introduction to commercialising cutting-edge technology—it had the key disciplines of applied research, project management and product development. And the fact that I’d come in right at the start of the project meant I could take the process right through to a first prototype.
My next two technical placements on the graduate programme followed the same pattern but with more responsibility and a tougher challenge each time.
The first one took me from France to Meggitt Avionics in the UK; they’re a global leader in air data systems and flight deck instruments. I worked with a team to develop a new algorithm to improve attitude and heading accuracy on our secondary flight displays—these units gather data from sources such as gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers to give pitch, yaw and heading angles in one digital display.
After a lot of research, quick learning and rapid development, I delivered a working algorithm by the end of the placement. Based on that, the team went on to use a Kalman filter approach which has now been fine-tuned and integrated into the hardware.
The next placement took me to Securaplane, a Meggitt business in Arizona specialising in battery systems, video camera, security and collision avoidance systems. Lighter and more powerful than conventional batteries, System Lithium is one of their flagship products. It consists of a set of very small, low-output smartphone-type cells wrapped in a sophisticated monitoring and health management package.
My mentor and manager there was Dr Mike Boost who developed the product. He’s one of the world’s leading experts in this area. My challenge was to lead development of the next-generation product saving even more weight. One improvement was to replace the aluminium housing out of carbon fibre composite.
We also fully redesigned the management system’s electronic board, introducing software in the battery and improving charger efficiency. The combination of the next-generation battery cells and the solutions we developed took a third off the weight—not bad considering the current model is one of the lightest around.
At the same time, I was also helping develop the technology roadmap for the product and established a partnership network with leading academics in the field at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and other top universities.
This combination of research, product innovation and longer term strategic planning is a key part of the training and prepares you for carrying out the same kind of work at a more senior level once you finish the programme.
Young engineers like to focus on technology but how a product is made—and the people who make it—are just as important as how it works. That’s why the experience I gained and the people I met during my placement in operations are now both so helpful in my current role.
You play a key strategic role on the graduate programme, testing new technologies and developing synergies across the group. As an alumni, you carry on doing the same thing but the stakes get higher.
During the placement—based in Switzerland—I helped map the value stream for a high-temperature engine sensor. Manufacture requires up to 100 manufacturing steps carried out by around 30 people and we found that a lot of time was being wasted following complex instructions. I researched a number of solutions for digitising the documentation—both to save time and improve safety by cutting down on workstation —and ran a pilot for one part of the process.
In time, it will hopefully evolve to allow operatives to scan a work order and retrieve instructions on a tablet or even some sort of wearable device. These organisational challenges require long, careful observation and thoughtful discussion to get people to agree on what needs changing and how best to do it.
Now I’ve finished the programme and I’m in my first permanent role, I draw on what I learned and the networks I developed around the business almost every day.
Right now, I’m back working on high-temperature sensors. There are some competitors at the 350-400°C level but at 700°C, Meggitt leads the world. About 60% of my time is spent as a technical lead on a redesign of next-generation proximity sensors for industrial turbines in the energy sector.
We want to reduce cost and we also have to meet some new industry regulations. When I started, there were some arguments between the engineers and the operations people about the best way ahead. Creating a decision matrix to accurately evaluate the different options helped us look more objectively at the issue and we’re now close to a solution.
The second part of my role is to develop a MEMS sensor solution for a next generation of Meggitt’s aircraft tyre pressure monitoring system. I’m the technical lead and, like my first project, I’m working with a third-party manufacturer and we’ll test for vibration, acceleration and temperature in house.
After doing a PhD in MEMS, I wanted to find an opportunity to develop and broaden my technical skills as well as build up my commercial and operations experience. The graduate programe at Meggitt is the perfect way to do that. And once you finish, there are more than enough cutting edge opportunities to keep you on the fast-track.
It’s a tough, challenging path and not everyone makes it. But if you’ve got what it takes, you can take it pretty much wherever you want.
Between each placement, trainees gather in the US or the UK to complement their on-the-job training with an intensive week of product innovation workshops, networking and commercial and technical training.
“It’s turbo-charged learning,” says mechanical engineer Lauren Won. “You get exactly what you need to put your placement work in context and prepare for the next big leap. It’s a lot of fun too.”
Well, I’m an engineer so I believe that if you get the right components in place, you can do anything. In my first transition week, we looked closely at successful innovation strategies by some of the world’s leading companies, breaking them down into 10 different areas. Creativity is essential but it’s not the only thing: discipline, communication and good process are also critical.
We split into teams to explore the subject further. My group looked at how Tesla had developed one of the best electric car offerings in the US by combining complementary products and services—a marketleading battery, an extensive charging network and regular updates for both engine and software. Product systems and a high level of service also give Meggitt the edge so it was a very useful comparison.
In my first transition week, we worked on a new nozzle for aircraft fire extinguishers—fire protection is a core capability here. Today the most widely used suppressing agent is called Halon. It has a very low boiling point so you can release it from a simple cylindrical pipe without any kind of nozzle and it chokes flames very quickly. But it also damages the ozone layer. Finding a ‘green’ replacement is a big challenge for the aviation industry
The fluid blends being considered are much denser and have to be distributed using a nozzle. We were challenged with creating a 3D-print design with the right curvature to create a spray profile that can put out a fire, ideally with less fluid.
By the end of the week, we had printed up our design and the results looked promising. The engineers working on the project full time are now investigating further.
On the graduate programme, we get to work at every level of the business, from factory floor to board room so we probably see more than a lot of people. Plus we’re new so we get to ask the most basic questions. Why is that done like that? What’s that for? Once you’ve been around for a while, you’re more likely to accept things as they are.
So Tony Wood, Meggitt’s Chief Operating Officer, asked us to feedback on our experience in a range of areas including technology, operations, customer focus and culture. I was on the technology and operations team. We started two months before the transition week and had a weekly meeting online to discuss what we’d found and how we’d present it.
Having to gather that information and make recommendations—even if they’re not always the best ideas!—is a great way to learn about change management. How do you balance R&D with the daily focus on getting product out the door, for example? How do you sell in the need for change and get people on your side?
Tony’s feedback on our presentations made much more sense because we’d already had a go at tackling the problems ourselves. Chris Allen, President of Meggitt Sensing Systems, and Chief Technology Officer Keith Jackson were also there so you’re getting the view from the very top but in a very discursive, interactive way.
The transition weeks are a perfect partner to our work on placements which is often very specialised. On my first one, for example, we explored the principles of Lean design by redesigning a simple fire door latch assembly. Which components can you remove? How can you redesign what’s left to simplify manufacture?
Those are the essentials no matter how complex the product.
We also had a day of training with the group head of programme and project management. Between my second and third placements, we had a fascinating day on jet engines with Phil Walsh. He spent 30 years at Rolls-Royce before coming to Meggitt so he really knows what he’s talking about.
I’d been working on redesigning a valve in my second placement but it was only when I got the big picture that I could see exactly where it actually sat in one of its applications—in a piccolo tube in the engine’s ice protection system.
We finished up that week with a session on finance for engineers. We might be skilful mathematicians but not many of us have financial experience! It’s a critical discipline for any top engineer though. They’ve boiled the learning right down into a custom package that’s perfect for what we need.
It’s turbo-charged learning … and it’s a lot of fun too.
It’s a misunderstood word, I think, but for me it’s one of the best things about these weeks. Most of the company’s senior technical leadership come through at some point, as well as other experts from around the business.
There’s a big investment in this programme so they’re all genuinely interested in how you’re doing professionally and what you’re like as a person, too. We’re the future of the business, after all, and creating a legacy is something they really care about.
Just as important, though, is the chance to get together with the other trainees and compare notes. Everyone here is smart but we all have different ways of thinking, different passions, different experiences. So in almost any conversation you have, you’ll get some new insights and perspectives.
That’s fascinating in itself but it’s also hugely bonding. You build strong relationships you can call on during your placements and, judging by the calibre of the people here, for the rest of your career, too.
From Ground Level to 30,000 Feet
Ypatia Limniati is learning about optimised manufacturing in the best possible way: by making it happen at the cutting edge.
Warm-up techniques, kinesio tape for boosting muscle elasticity, joint protection, video performance review … as the vice-captain of the Greek U20 basketball team, I had to look everywhere for incremental improvement. We had tricks and tools for improving every aspect of individual and team performance.
It’s very similar, in fact, to my first assignment on the programme. Based at the Meggitt facility in Fribourg, Switzerland, my brief was to deepen and widen the practice of Daily Layered Accountability (DLA)—the series of tiered meetings that kicks off each working day.
DLA ensures that any operational issues are identified and addressed immediately—at the right level by the right people. As problems get solved, employees gain confidence that their skills and experience give them the authority to own their team’s performance: it’s their knowledge that shape the tools and processes we need to succeed.
During my stay in Fribourg I helped teams beyond the factory floor implement DLA, driving process improvements with daily standard work.
The sales team, for example, was finding that lack of coordination and clear role definition in the bid process was putting bid quality at risk. By integrating key deliverables and milestones into their DLA, the team ensured that all stakeholders—inside and outside sales—were clear on their responsibilities. Any issues that might compromise a deliverable are now escalated and solved more quickly. Closer collaboration between sales and engineering means more accurate cost and price estimates which in turn means more competitive bids.
Observing the evolution of DLA first-hand was the best introduction to corporate change management I could have had. Working with site leadership, I supported the establishment of a standard assessment process, which we then used to coach the leader of each DLA and share best practice. We also helped bring the total number of employees participating in DLA to more than 70% of the total.
One of the strategic goals at Fribourg last year was to reduce inventory. Our ‘planning for every part’ process corroborated what many of our operators were saying: old turning and milling machines were taking too long to set up—several hours in some cases.
Working with the plant’s manufacturing director and two in-house experts, I was tasked with putting together the business case for an investment in new machinery. By sourcing a second-hand machine, we estimated savings of more than $400,000, inventory savings of more than $80,000 and return on investment within two years. It’s now installed and producing parts with an average reduction in machining and set up time of 75%.
My second placement took me to Coventry in the UK where I worked on a footprint rationalisation initiative looking at how we can maximise the use of our existing factory network globally. In 2016, we announced the closure of four sites and we plan to reduce our manufacturing footprint by a further 20% by 2021 as part of a continuous effort to improve our efficiency.
Working with the manufacturing strategy and integration team, I initiated a new approach, creating a consolidated view of all the potential factory transition projects. I developed an analytical tool to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each one in financial, operational and risk terms through a standard process to support overall decision making at Group level.
I also worked on the business case for a large-scale transition project, exploring potential synergies in blended factories which combine various capabilities and technologies to manufacture multiple product lines from different divisions, ultimately reducing overall footprint.
Each transition project is an investment opportunity. So this is one of the key high-level operations initiatives running at Meggitt at the moment.
It was a great contrast to the work I did at Fribourg where I was focusing on operational excellence at the factory and production line level. Here we were exploring ways of improving productivity, maximizing return on assets and boosting synergies at the strategic level.
Right now, I’m just beginning my third placement which will give me the experience I need to understand operational excellence at the division level, filling in the gap between the factory-level work in my first placement and the group-level work in my second.
I’m based at Meggitt in Akron, Ohio where they make aircraft braking systems. I’m working on a Lean initiative to identify, measure and reduce the cost of poor quality through the whole lifecycle of a product. Known as a cost of poor quality (COPQ) programme, it will help drive down costs in areas such as rework, scrap, re-design, warranties and concessions.
My brief is first to develop a standard system for data collection, tracking and reporting to consolidate COPQ impacts and then work with relevant teams across the functions to lead some process improvement projects.
Aircraft braking systems are a great contrast to sensing systems in terms of size, volume and manufacturing or supporting processes. In some cases, products are 10-20 times bigger in Akron and volumes 5-10 times smaller. In Fribourg, it was exciting to see how our piezoelectric discs are manufactured, whereas here I’m learning about our unique carbon heat treatment manufacturing process.
Talking to others on the programme, it’s clear that these kind of opportunities are the standard—and so is working closely with Meggitt leaders. It’s that combination that drives our rapid growth and development as well as our understanding of all levels of the business.
Take Off with a Global Leader
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 is 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 1,000–3,000°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 was 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.
Every day I walk through aerospace history … and then try to shape its future.
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
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 particle-sensitive environment.
I think the programme here is unique in that you get the opportunity to develop your skills 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.
Live From the Frontline
Catching up with graduate engineer Farhana a year on from our first discussion, we hear about R&D into composite materials, tiny next-generation pressure sensors and how to negotiate your way to the top, in business and beyond.
There was such a great variety. I loved it. Overall I managed four projects. I did everything from working with third-parties on development to managing the legal aspects and researching purchasing. It was a great introduction to the overall Meggitt R&D process and I got to work on some fascinating potential products.
One was a novel fabric developed by a fashion designer which could help us simplify manufacture of our self-sealing fuel tanks. There was also a fuel tank liner designed to bleed off static electrical charges and I was looking into a heating element for one of our new aircraft de-icing products.
There was an option of a rotation at Meggitt Training Systems but after discussing it with my mentor, we felt the sensing business in California was a better choice. I came here in June 2013 to test a new design of our piezoresistive pressure sensor which is used in aircraft tyre pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).
Optimum pressure is key: tyres at the correct pressure not only increase safety but they reduce fuel consumption too, much like a car tyre.
Our existing product is designed for dynamic environments but this one is also used in static conditions. It’s about 2.5mm in diameter and, like many of our components, it has to cope with serious extremes: temperatures ranging from -55˚C in flight to 220˚C on landing, and pressure up to 800psi. Its key function is to reduce maintenance by flagging up exactly when tyre pressure needs to be adjusted. The design is more robust now and will last as long as the wheel, further improving efficiency.
The sensor uses micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) technology and we’ve tested hundreds of the silicon dies the sensors are made from.
Over the life of the product it is essential that we understand any drift in the readings and the spread and population of the drift. That’s what makes aerospace so hard, low volumes and a very long life, maybe 30 years. We have now been able to characterise minute details of the product’s construction that enable us to understand how it will perform throughout its life.
Highlights on the project have included working closely with our fabrication facility in Northern California and visiting them a few times. Plus it’s been very interesting to attend meetings every week to address the production and development issues we’re facing.
Known as gemba meetings, they’re named after a Japanese word (現場) that means the actual place where work is done. Instead of going to meeting rooms to talk to senior management, they come to us to hear our views on progress and what we need to get on faster. It gives people at every level the freedom and the responsibility to improve things themselves so they can work to the very best of their ability.
Yes, it’s a group project to encourage collaboration within the engineering graduate programme. Working in groups of four, we had to elect a project leader then select an existing Meggitt product to redesign and manufacture using 3D printing.
I was voted leader of my team and, in the end, we decided on one of our heat exchangers as this seemed to offer the biggest potential benefits. Our first design was no good—the product was too big for ALM. But by introducing a smaller, lighter lattice structure and by reducing the number of parts to one, we were pretty sure we could manufacture it using a 3D printer.
We presented our findings at a ‘transition’ week in California in May when all the graduates met for training between placements. There was a very tough panel who took us through the Meggitt process for new products—preliminary design review, risk assessment, critical design review and manufacturing readiness review. We had training to complement each stage which was really helpful and although the judges had some concerns, our design passed. Hopefully we’ll get to work on it some more later in the programme.
Yes, I’m taking on one of our Applied Research and Technology R&D projects. We have an ALM etch plate design which has mainly been used in our heat exchangers but we believe it could be beneficial to many different Meggitt businesses. We need to do further R&D to investigate but I’m not starting from scratch like I did on the projects in my first placement. This time my training is focused on a different phase.
I’m based at one of Meggitt’s facilities in the UK but working with people across a number of our businesses—great for my experience and for networking too.
That’s been super helpful. There are the technical courses, like the metallurgy or the design of experiments training I’ve just had, very useful on the current TPMS project. And then there’s the personal and professional development stuff.
Recently we had two days of negotiations training. That was an eye-opener. I didn’t know what I’d been missing. There were lessons on planning, persistence and starting high, as well as common tactics and strategies to look out for and lessons on how to counter them.
And we’ve had presentations training too. That came in very handy when I went to give a talk about what it’s like to work here to engineering students at University of California, Riverside. Judging from their enthusiasm and feedback, they enjoyed what I had to say.
But then that was one of the first lessons in the training—to fully engage your audience, choose something interesting to talk about. No problem there. There’s so much to choose from on the Meggitt Graduate Engineering Programme!
Supply Chain and Collaboration
In my first nine-month assignment, I had the opportunity to dive head-first into the exciting world of aerospace supply chain. Contract negotiation with suppliers, inventory management, and routinely resolving procurement issues as they arise were among the day-to-day tasks in my first assignment as an Operations Graduate.
I never thought that I would have the opportunity to apply supply chain concepts and skills learned in school directly in a negotiation with a global hardware supplier in Morocco – three months into my assignment!
Understanding the process and components needed for aircraft wheel and brake manufacturing – the bill of material and supplier list is extensive! My current assignment deals with material and parts – thousands of them. In order to have effective conversations with engineers, planners, and suppliers, I had to have a basic understanding of the critical mechanisms in a wheel and brake assembly. There was a wheel and brake model built for an Airbus A340 sitting right in my department! Many times, I found myself referring to that model to get a better understanding of the material that I was working with and how it all fit together.
In addition to understanding the assemblies, my job required that I work with different people from all over the world. Oftentimes, my goals would conflict with various organisations that I was negotiating with. Suppliers would ask questions, propose different ideas, or sometimes flat out refuse to work with me on objectives set out by Meggitt. It was up to me to maintain persistence, communicate effectively, and leverage other areas of the relationship with the supplier to ensure success.
Utilising the company’s resources – and utilising them well. Whenever posed with a difficult task or project, I was able to navigate the challenge by utilising the host of resources that Meggitt provides. Be it – the internal portal to share ideas, my programme mentor, or at times even the other graduates in my programme – I was never short of opportunities for support.
Another key to success is knowing what I wanted to learn and communicating that to my coworkers, mentor, and leadership. There is always someone there to help you ride the learning curve!
In my first assignment I found myself in Akron, Ohio working for the aircraft braking systems business of Meggitt. A strategic initiative of Meggitt is to place greater emphasis on inventory management – specifically reducing the costs involved. I was tasked with increasing the amount of spend with suppliers that is on consignment and VMI contracts. It wasn’t always easy, but I learned a great deal about contract negotiation – at a global level. My job afforded me the opportunity to meet with many suppliers face-to-face. I travelled from France to California to assess supplier capabilities, negotiate agreements, and establish relationships with key players in our supply chain base.
Working on complex problems with a team of engineers. My team was tasked with developing an alternative ram air turbine (RAT) for next-generation aircraft that was lighter, more efficient, and cost-effective. I was able to consider the problem from a supply chain perspective – the best designed RAT in the world will not be successful if the material to make it cannot be sourced economically!
I am eagerly awaiting my next placement and assignment!