May 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 1 
Integrated Defense Systems


Super Hornet team begins switch to pulse assembly line


Sharon Beauclar and Tom Naeger use air pads to move a completed outer wing frameBoeing Integrated Defense Systems is converting the F/A-18E/F manufacturing process in St. Louis from stationary assembly to a pulse line.

The change promises a better value for the U.S. Navy and the continued quality and craftsmanship that Boeing workers put into every Super Hornet.

"This is a total cultural change for us," said Cliff Hall, leader and superintendent of the Forward Fuselage Integrated Process Team. "Everyone was involved in this, from the HPWO (High Performance Work Organization) teams, the design teams, the manufacturing engineers and our leadership. This was an integrated approach."

The idea stemmed from several smaller pulse changes suggested by HPWO teams and implemented in various areas of the assembly site. In a pulse line, every piece in the assembly line is moved, or pulsed, to the next station at a set time. Currently, many of the stations are permanent, and as new jobs need to be completed, the assembly workers move to the aircraft. With pulsing, the aircraft do the moving.

Several assembly team members welcome the change. With pulsing, "all your tools are right where you need them," said Doug Morris, a sheet metal assembler riveter in the inner wing skinning area. "Everything will be right there."

Such a change may not seem like much. But to Daniel Banker, a teammate of Morris, "having the parts right there is a big step. We've improved a lot of things on this line in the last four to five years, but this is the biggest."

Currently, workers have tools and parts in their general areas, and need to retrieve items for each job. In the pulse line, their tools and parts will be located virtually next to their work stands. Workers will remain at the same stations and won't have to move their tools with them to various aircraft.

Moving the aircraft instead of people will make it easier to regulate work, said David Elliott from the inner wing skinning area. "It's the best thing going," he said. "This will regulate work better and we'll be able to identify problems quicker and solve them faster."

Changing to a pulse line will take a lot of coordination and won't happen overnight, Hall explained. The plan is to pulse the line relative to customer demand, he said, which means that the tasks at any single point must be balanced. "You can't have one area where you have jobs that take three days, and another that takes six," Hall said. "So we need to redistribute some tasks, so each area will have tasks enough for, say, five days."

One example is in the forward fuselage structure area, where currently the fuselage stays in a Low-Rate Expandable Tool for 18 days. The team is working on dividing tasks, reordering them where possible or even moving tasks to a different point in the line to develop several smaller areas, each of which will have approximately five days' worth of work.

"The significant investment will yield substantial savings," much of which will be in hours spent to produce the aircraft, Hall said. "We should be able to produce more aircraft in the same time at a lower cost," he said, because the assembly teams will not be spending as much time moving the aircraft by crane from one assembly jig to the next.

Flexibility will be enhanced by another planned design change--putting the tooling itself on air pads, rollers or rails to make it easier to move the aircraft without having to hoist it into or out of tooling. Currently, it takes two or three people almost an hour to move a forward fuselage from one assembly jig to another. Such a move creates issues of time, safety and quality, Hall explained.

The idea is to reconfigure the entire factory overnight or over a weekend. In the wing skinning area alone, the team estimates that pulsing will reduce the number of hoists needed from the current 42 to "no more than four or five," Banker said.

The transition will take place in two phases over two years. The first phase, under way now, involves changing tooling and relocating some tasks on the shop floor.

The second phase will focus on work content to arrange tasks in a balanced way to ensure the line--from the structures area to final assembly--can pulse at the same time.

Part of the transition will include redefining HPWOs to reflect work stations, rather than broader areas such as wing or forward fuselage.

The transition, which the team refers to as "Future State," goes beyond the ideals of Lean principles, takt-time pacing, point-of-use delivery and one-piece flow, said Dan Schell, IDS manager of F/A-18 Assembly Integration. "Future State takes our continuous improvement initiatives to the next level," he said. "We've put pulse lines in several assembly areas over the past few years. Now we want to take these lessons learned and do the same for the whole program, so the whole program is engaged in pulse lines from start to finish."

The team has a vision, Hall explained, to "make sure that when someone says, 'world-class, low-cost tactical aircraft producer,' they immediately think of Boeing St. Louis."


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