Thinking Differently Means Thinking Horizontally
He comes by it naturally. Teddy Singh, an experienced assembly mechanic in West Palm Beach, is meant to build jet engines. And he has – thousands of them, in a very traditional fashion. But he remembers offering his take when asked if it should be done differently.
"We never ventured into a full horizontal build," Singh said from the assembly floor in Florida. "It was definitely a huge task."
It is easy to say, "we'll try something different." But to actually dedicate resources to make the leap from talk to action takes time, research, and perhaps most importantly, courage.
"You knew you had this ramp, you knew what your output needed to be," said Gabrielle Murphy, formerly process planning lead, Development, for the company's new horizontal assembly system. "And from a planning perspective, we were very organized."
Pratt & Whitney's advanced PurePower® PW1100G-JM engine on the Airbus A320neo is constructed in a truly unique way that breaks the traditional mold of engine construction.
And thinking differently meant thinking horizontally. The new system is now in its second full year of operation.
But how did we get here? What are the origins of deciding that Pratt & Whitney's North American engine centers would best be served with a new approach, especially after building engines in such a familiar fashion for decades? It started with the assembly of a team.
"I remember the first time the horizontal assembly concept was discussed and my initial reaction was, 'that's interesting. It's different. It's not impossible. But does it really make sense?'" said Ted Sluis, 30K production manager.
Building an engine horizontally had been attempted before on both military and commercial applications. But it never truly yielded the kind of efficiency and ergonomic benefits that engineers were looking for. But with the sheer volume of orders that the PurePower® engine was getting, a new process was a necessity. Research was needed and one stop was north of the border, at Pratt & Whitney Canada's Aerospace Centre in Mirabel, Quebec. Here, the engine powering Bombardier's C Series was being built horizontally.
"We took the learning from the Mirabel experience into the 30K to basically say – fundamentally – we're going to use the same concept of the overhead system because they tried that out; they worked out a lot of kinks with that," Murphy said.
More benchmarking was needed and the team headed overseas to study European manufacturers, including the Audi Group. The company was building the sleek Audi R8 with a horizontal system where part flow to mechanics was lean and efficient.
"The first thing I thought when I walked into the factory building the R8 was the volume – the sheer volume. They had one car after another. And they had mechanics working on every single car part coming to every single car," said Jazz Lopez, NGPF operations manager in West Palm Beach.
It wasn't a leap of faith, it was a steadfast belief that it would work. A carrier system moving on rails from station to station, with parts being added until the engine is sent to test and then to a customer.
"We knew it was going to work," Murphy said with a smile.
So construction began. There was a massive renovation and rebuilding project in Middletown and the creation of an entirely new facility in West Palm Beach.
"My first memory was coming into this building and seeing just posts and slowly time went by and one carrier went up, two carriers went up," Singh said.
Eventually, the result would speak for itself. The first production engine rolled off the line to Airbus, and now there are thousands more to follow. Engines built on the new carrier system are now carrying passengers, saving fuel and changing aviation. It wasn't easy getting there, but trailblazing rarely is.
"Once you've grown accustomed to one thing, change is hard to accept. But over time, I think it's won over a lot of people," said Singh.
There will always be fine-tuning or a new idea to make this methodology even better. The ramp is here, Singh is ensuring engines go out the door and Pratt & Whitney has again proved innovation leads to progress.
"Now that I understand the volume, the capacity requirements, the way we need to deliver, I think this makes perfect sense. I think going forward, it's the future of Pratt," Singh said.