An article on Aerospace Manufacturing – Author: Mike Richardson

Scott Bairstow, Northwest Aerospace Alliance’s programme manager for ASCE2 provides Mike Richardson with an update on the ASCE programme’s progress and its profound effect on the UK aerospace industry’s supply chain.

It’s been a long time in coming, but the UK aerospace industry has finally realised it has to take a long hard look at itself and particularly the lack of ‘joined up’ thinking between the primes and tier suppliers.

Both parties probably realise that to achieve and maintain improvements in the supply chain could prove crucial to the continued competitiveness and survival of the UK aerospace and defence industry, but it wasn’t until the Northwest Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) stepped in to act as a go-between that one by one, the links in the supply chain have begun to form a consolidated and united industry.

Launched at Farnborough in 2006, the NWAA’s Aerospace Supply Chain Excellence (ASCE1) structured and systematic programme was said to be the first attempt at a coordinated approach to supplier development in the UK aerospace industry. ASCE2 is the cluster’s second programme aimed at improving the performance of the North West aerospace sector and builds on the foundations created by ASCE1.

With both programmes strongly supported by the North West primes, the ASCE2 programme’s objective is to secure a competitive base of world-class aerospace supply chain companies in the North West of England by driving forward five key work streams.

“When we started the ASCE1 programme in 2006, it was very much about trying to create a world-class supply chain,” begins the NWAA’s programme manager for ASCE2, Scott Bairstow.

“ASCE1 was very successful, but ultimately when we started to benchmark companies and truly understand what ‘world-class’ meant, it was not about individual companies working in isolation, it was around deep collaboration and working as a close coupled cluster. So ASCE1 was about improving individual company performance in line with the requirements of the primes, whereas ASCE2 is about collaboration and working with customers and suppliers in a collaborative manner.

“We developed the ASCE2 programme to focus on the concept of creating a ‘super cluster’. This means companies not only working closely with their customers and their supplier peers, but also working with academia, universities, research centres and other areas of influence, such as funding bodies in closely coupled alignment.”

The ASCE2 programme focuses on delivering five key work streams, notably commodity groups, skills and image, innovation, shared services and extended enterprise. Each encourages collaborative behaviour and close coupled thinking.

“We performed ‘make versus buy’ exercises within ASCE1 that involved getting companies to focus on their core competencies i.e. the things they should be making, as opposed to those elements that weren’t competitive or non-core and should therefore be bought in,” explains Bairstow. “We applied these principals to the North West aerospace sector which revealed that our key strengths, areas of expertise and key requirements of future aircraft programmes covered areas that came from commodity groups such as composites, machining, process treatments, design & engineering, robotics, automation & tooling and autonomous systems. These seven commodity areas were key competencies of the North West aerospace sector and became the focal point for our supplier engagement with aerospace companies through the ASCE2 programme.”

A Line in the sand

Within these commodity groups, the NWAA has created learner to world-class models – very similar to ASCE1 – but based on a commodity focus. The organisation benchmarks companies across these groups to provide a similar ‘line in the sand’ in terms of where they are on the learner to world-class journey. The NWAA then works with the supplier companies identifies collective areas for improvement so that companies can work on collaborative improvement projects that are beneficial to each of the companies as opposed to companies working individually.

“For the skills and image work stream, we’ve developed a skills capacity model that allows us to predict the ongoing skills demand signals,” states Bairstow. “We relay these demand signals back to the training service providers to ensure they have the appropriate future training provision in place. We understand the current skills requirements of the companies today, looking at which aircraft programmes they are on and what the ramp up rates of those programmes are and use this data to provide the future skills demand. The skills capacity model allows us to predict what the future requirement is and where the gaps are going to be. The key benefits for the training service providers are that it gives them a very accurate signal of what training provision they need to put in place in the future. 

“The image activity of the ASCE 2 programme is very much about trying to engage and enthuse young people in future careers in the aerospace industry. We’ve developed activities around exhibiting at shows, but also tailoring events to local schools too. We’ve instigated Enterprise Challenge events, where typically we’ll involve schools in the locality and hold a day’s event similar to television’s Dragon’s Den where schoolchildren have to form teams that contain a managing director, a finance director and a design engineer for example, and they have to create a solution to a particular problem and then present it to the panel of Dragons. The Dragons then assess the entries and there will be one winner. We have five regional heats and then a final and they have really been fantastic engagement events.”

The next theme focuses on innovation: “The aerospace sector is truly global which means all the developing countries and economies want a piece of the aerospace market because it offers high tech and high value added employment, so we have to be constantly be doing something different in the North West and the UK to stay one step ahead,” he continues. “There’s a work stream that looks at increasing the level of collaboration and innovation through things like developing active research projects where we’re working on new future technologies, developing improvement programmes and these are on a collective basis and not just individual programmes. What we’ve also done through our work stream is pull together all the key North West academia, universities and R&D centres that have aerospace expertise and get them working together. We help to ensure the work they’re doing meets the needs of the North West industry.

Typically, research organisations chase research funding, but it’s not always aligned to the requirements of the local industry, so we’re working to ensure that the industry’s demand signals are being anticipated by academia so they can instigate the appropriate research to pull that research through into industry.”

Rules of engagement

The NWAA spreads programme awareness by conducting technology forums to unite suppliers and universities and showcase the capabilities that are aligned to the requirements of ASCE’s learner to world-class model in the activities of composites, machining process treatments, and design & engineering. “It promotes engagement where companies can actually link up with academia to actually develop improvable projects as well,” he claims.

He goes on to add that the shared services work stream means implementing these services around aggregated procurement which helps to achieve a better price and obviously removes cost from the business which then improves competitiveness: “By working as a collective and aggregating demand we can actually achieve a better price back to each supplier so they all benefit and remove cost.”

The last and probably most difficult work stream is the extended enterprise which aims to get companies to unite and bid collaboratively for bigger contracts than they could do as individual companies. 

“This intends to meet the changing requirements from the primes, particularly in the civil market with customers like Airbus looking to pass down bigger contracts that require risk and revenue sharing capability,” he says. “We’re trying to create a collective entity that could potentially offer a solution in terms of reducing the amount of suppliers the primes need to interface with and having one lead supplier who then manages the rest of the collaborative extended enterprise. These are all North West suppliers that will work in unison and provide a tailored response back to each of the global tier ones. 

“We also hold an annual summit, which is based around what’s happening in the ASCE programmes. We also conduct activities across the global aerospace market to promote our capabilities by developing commercial activities in Canada as well as proposals into the Spanish and Dutch aerospace clusters too. We attend events like the Farnborough Airshow and Paris Airshow every year, and this tends to be where many of our international enquiries come from.” 

Gaining universal approval

I’m interested to know the level of acceptance that the ASCE2 programme receives from the industry and whether the larger primes are demanding that their tier suppliers become engaged?

“We’ve seen massive interest in the ASCE1 programme and certainly with what we are doing with ASCE2 too,” Bairstow maintains. “Many aircraft OEMs don’t have strong supply chain development programmes, whereas we’ve invested close to £20 million of funding in supply chain development in the North West, which we feel provides a real unique selling point to the region.

“It’s sometimes difficult to understand the level of collaborative effort required and it can be quite alien to many organisations. However, once companies start to understand the approach and particularly the direction that the primes are taking in terms of their desire to interface with a reduced number of suppliers, then they start to see the bigger picture about the need to collaborate. 

“ASCE2 is very challenging and very ambitious in what it tries to deliver and it does need constant promoting to influence it,” he concludes. “However, the more mature companies recognise the need to do it and hence become more and more involved. We’re fully confident that the benefit companies will receive by being involved in the programme will far outweigh any downsides and lead to a long-term sustainable North West aerospace sector – which is something we’re trying to achieve.”

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