Innovate While Pursuing Productivity

Aero Gear continues to invest in new technology!

We’ve added yet another piece of cutting-edge equipment to our collection.  Our most recent addition is the Mori Seki NT Series Twin Spindle Machining Center.  This multi-axis machine is a fusion of two innovative technologies that combine both machining centers and lathes! photo 

We can now convert a slug of steel into a complex configured aerospace gear ready for carburizing and finish processing, all in one operation! Without this new technology, manufacturing required multiple turning operations, gear shaping, hobbing and milling, all to prepare the gear for final heat treatment. Now, not only are labor hours reduced, but lead time is slashed from days to hours!

The machine is equipped with probing to monitor its cutting tools and the final products.  This new feature helps us maintain the precision of the cutting tools, and ensures that our final parts are top-of-the-line quality. 

photo 2Once programed and set in motion, this equipment can run “lights out”, without a person monitoring its action.  We believe that this type of investment in technology is important to stay competitive in the global market place. Aero Gear prides itself on being a highly responsive, high-tech, lean leader. Stay tuned to learn about our next investment in the near future!

One Year Anniversary For Aero Gear Vacuum Carburizing Furnace

A little over one year ago, Aero Gear purchased a new – and very yellow – vacuum carburizing furnace in order to gain more control over case depth, hardness, and distortion compared to traditional atmosphere carburizing. Unlike atmosphere carburizing, our new furnace operates at pressures near the 1 micron range (that is 99.9999% of a perfect vacuum). What makes this technology so exciting is the ability to precisely control heat treatment parameters, and since its arrival in the beginning of July 2013, our team of engineers has been developing processes which remain consistent and repeatable. As a matter of fact, we have carburized nearly 6,000 pieces without a single metallurgical rejection.

Comparing Atmosphere and Vacuum Carburizing Results

Most of our precision gears are made out of the industry standard AISI 9310 and Pyrowear 53 steels. These low carbon steels were designed to be carburized in atmosphere furnaces, but we have seen that they vacuum carburize with more uniform case depth and hardness. The ability to drive carbon deeper into the surface also enables the gear to have much higher case hardness and compressive stresses which signify a stronger, tougher part. In addition, higher case hardness increases wear and pitting resistance.  To prove the merits of vacuum carburizing, we performed a residual stress profile using x-ray diffraction on as-carburized samples of a gear made of AISI 9310 steel. The results are below:

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Residual compressive stress in the case is 19% greater at the flank and 1260 MPa in the root when comparing vacuum vs. atmosphere carburized samples. Surface hardness for the atmosphere carburized sample is 62 HRC (Flank), 59 HRC (Root). Surface hardness for the vacuum carburized sample is 64 HRC (Flank), 62 HRC (Root).

Predictable Distortion

One of the key reasons Aero Gear has invested in vacuum carburization is more distortion control. The distortion can be very detrimental to a gear, regardless of how robust the carburizing process may be. Tooth spacing error, for instance, can lead to uneven grinding and the risk of removing too much case from one side of the tooth than the other. We use our on-site CMM (Coordinate Measuring Machine) to inspect all features of a gear, and using this data our engineers can tailor processes and fixturing on an individual part number basis. Parts carburized in our vacuum furnace distort less and have better case uniformity throughout the gear with more predictability.

Future Development

The addition of the vacuum furnace has allowed us to work on the development of heat treatment of new materials with our customers such as Ferrium C64. Aero Gear is currently developing heat treating and machining processes for Ferrium C64. This new material developed by Questek Innovations uses an M2C carbide precipitate to achieve hardness (where M is metal; C is carbon). Unlike AISI 9310 and Pyrowear 53, which use an epsilon carbide, the M2C carbide is much more effective and requires less carbon to achieve hardness. Precise carbon and temperature control is required for Ferrium C64 in order to avoid complex carbide (M6C, M7C3, M23C6, etc.) formation which could lead to crack propagation and reduced toughness during operation. Aero Gear’s engineers have developed processes to achieve optimum hardness and core properties while maintaining a carbide free microstructure. In addition, we have been developing machining processes to deal with the increased core hardness of Ferrium C64. Due to the significant amount of alloying constituents, machining parameters must be changed in order to compensate for the increased hardness and toughness. Furthermore, the capability to 2-bar quench allows us to reduce distortion, reducing machining time during further processing.

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We are continually learning and advancing our ability to successfully heat treat and machine complex geometries. We have accomplished so much more than we expected with our vacuum furnace but we still have so much more to develop and learn. Our expectations for the next year are even greater than last. We are on a path to be the experts in manufacturing vacuum carburized/hardened ground gears in the aerospace industry.

Look for our next update in the near future!

2014 Farnborough Air Show Wrap Up

Aero Gear attended its 5th fruitful Farnborough Air Show!

Our first priority when attending an Air Show is getting meetings with the right people. We develop a B2B checklist plan to meet existing and potential customers at the shows. Meeting face to face with the decision makers in our industry is the best way to pursue existing and new business opportunities. This year we were able to meet with everyone on our list, and several others that were not sought us out. When we return from the show, we spend the year following up on all of the meetings we had, hoping to turn them in to new business.

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While developing new business is the main reason we attend the Farnborough Air Show, we also look forward to the flight demonstrations. It is exciting to see the aircraft we supply hardware to fly overhead! This year the F-35 flight demonstration was expected to be the crown jewel of the show. This much anticipated aircraft is the world’s leading tactical fighter that was originally set to fly at Farnborough in 2012, but due to mechanical issues could not attend.

The air show marketing team kept everyone on the edge of their seats with press releases day to day in anticipation of the F-35 flying to Farnborough. It dominated every conversation. As most are aware a fire on the F135 engine in June 2014 grounded the fleet of F-35s. There was a thick cloud of drama each day – is it coming? Did they fix the problem in time? Do they know what caused the fire?  Unfortunately, on Wednesday 7/16, the air show officials held a press conference at the static display of the F-35 announcing officially that it was NOT coming to Farnborough. This ended the drama and dashed everyone’s hopes of seeing the F-35, the world’s most advanced fighter, fly. image004

We know that in time the F-35 issues that caused it not to appear at Farnborough will be dealt with and forgotten over time. The world’s most advanced fighter is still going through its’ growing pains, unfortunately one happened at the same time as the 2014 Farnborough Air Show.

Our disappointment of the F-35 not flying at the air show did not dampen our enthusiasm for the main reason we were there. We have many meetings to follow-up on and visits to existing and new customers in the next year that will develop into long term business relationships!

We will see you at the Paris Air Show 2015!!!!

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Farnborough Air Show Offers an “Airfield” of Opportunities

Once again Aero Gear will be participating in the Farnborough Air Show! It will be our 5th time displaying at this extraordinary event. We have found it to be very beneficial to attend for many reasons. Not only is it an exciting place to be but, it is the largest air show of the year and attended by virtually everyone in the industry.1402

Each year we strategize on which customers, programs and power drive systems in the global aerospace industry have the most growth potential for us. We evaluate programs that are in development, in legacy mode, in full production or set for future growth. The airshow offers an enormous opportunity to interface with our existing customers and establish new relationships with potential customers where we can offer our engineering and manufacturing expertise in producing their products.

More than 200,000 industry people will attend the show representing both commercial and military aviation. It is attended by all the major players: Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, UTC, GE – It is also attended by thousands of companies that make up the supply chains that supply these major players. It is an unusual event where everyone in the industry is together and it is a great opportunity to network, exchange ideas and learn what is going on in the industry. You get to meet with the right people face to face and it is a very efficient way to meet with all of your customers in one location.

The show consists of: component manufacturers like Aero Gear displaying their products, static displays of the latest aircraft and of course the “airshow” itself where the latest aircraft are flying to demonstrate their capability. We are all excited this year to see the F35 fly for the first time at an airshow! This joint strike fighter is the most advanced fighter in the world. Aero Gear makes several components for this amazing aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engine. Watching it fly will be invigorating just knowing that our company played a small role in making it happen. It gets you motivated and proud to be part of such a dynamic industry.

Some of the benefits of attending the show are intangible, but I believe it is important to display and attend the show if you want your company to be viewed as a global player in the industry. The meetings that take place at the airshow are the “kick-off” for the communication and coordination of meetings with potential customers that at some point through everyone’s efforts are realized with contracts for our product. With the industry ramping up developing new more fuel efficient, quieter and environmentally safer engines in the upcoming years, it is an exciting time for our industry!

Moving Forward from Basic TPM to Maintenance Excellence

Many years ago when Aero Gear began our lean journey, we began a TPM (total preventative maintenance) program. It was an exciting time in the business as we transformed the company to flow the product and established the TPM program to ensure we kept the equipment running in order to support the flow. It was the beginning of establishing a partnership between the maintenance department and the operators running the equipment. The operators began performing daily/weekly checks and kept the maintenance staff informed of any issues with the equipment. The maintenance staff would perform the more in-depth maintenance typically every 6 months as well as any other problems/breakdowns.

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This system has worked well for us for many years. As part of our Continuous Improvement efforts a couple of months ago we had a Kaizen in our maintenance department. The Kaizen started out as a 6S Kaizen, but soon led to discussions like “what is our vision for the maintenance department?” as well as “how do we do a better job predicting/preventing breakdowns?”.

These discussions prompted us to locate an industry expert to help us establish a plan to take our maintenance efforts to the next level. This past month the industry expert (John Kravonthka) came to our company to facilitate a 3 day training Kaizen called “Maintenance Excellence Training” with tremendous success.

The training session involved the maintenance department as well as selected members of the operations team. It was a combination of classroom and “hands-on” with the equipment on the floor and resulted in:

1.) Developing a maintenance vision
2.) Identifying and having a plan for critical equipment
3.) Established a Goal: Zero equipment stoppages – how does equipment fail?
4.) Developed lubrication excellence
5.) Metrics: Measure against World Class Maintenance
6.) Developed a go-forward plan/strategy

This event turned out to be much more than a training session. It was a highly effective Kaizen that will lead to better productivity, profitability and pride in the workplace. It became apparent to our team that maintenance should not be viewed as a “necessary evil” but rather as an opportunity to be more successful. The other lesson learned was that Continuous Improvement means pushing the organization to be better and not settling for status quo. There are always ways to improve and perform better, reflecting our corporate ethos of insisting on excellence, throughout the Aero gear business.

The Ramp Up Ahead, Incline or Mountain?

Most of us in the aerospace supply chain are making preparations for the increased workload forecast in the coming years; however, it is difficult to sort through the information and predictions regarding the ramp up ahead. Will it end up being a steady increase of work or will it hit us abruptly?

The Ramp Up is driven by the market demand for more fuel efficient airframes and engines. How rapidly can this actually occur? The aerospace prime manufacturers are expediting the time it normally takes to go to full production from recent benchmarks like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380, which took 7-10 years to an unprecedented 3-5 years. It takes time to bring these high technology amazing new aircraft and engines to market. Design development, numerous static and flight tests are required before product is released to full production. It usually takes much longer than predicted or expected.

Timing of each supplier’s preparation depends of course on the type of product they produce, but is going to be critical to each one’s success. When to capitalize and have the equipment in position for the ramp up is one critical question.  It takes months to have equipment built, delivered and implemented for production.  It depends on the complexity of the equipment, in our product, anywhere from 8 to 18 months before realization on investment.

The second critical question is when to hire the additional workforce. In our product, it takes anywhere from 4 to 8 months to train a worker to full capability on a new piece of equipment. Each supplier needs to factor in the time it will take to educate the new workforce.

With such a huge pending Ramp Up in the aerospace market one might say supplier’s concern about capitalization and new people is a moot point, since “it’s around the corner”.

Meanwhile, a looming concern for companies in the aerospace supply chain is the faster than expected phase out of Legacy programs before new growth platforms have had a chance to mature and fill the production gap.  Originally, existing Legacy programs were forecast to have a much more gradual sloping “tail”, which would have meshed well with the upswing of the next generation programs.  Instead, a relatively weak global economy, and the promise of greater fuel efficiency, has lead many commercial airlines around the world to delay purchases.  At the same time, budget pressures in the United States and pending sequestration cuts have put a crimp on purchases of aging but still core military platforms.  This confluence of factors has created a larger than expected production gap in the aerospace market, and left companies in the supply chain struggling to keep a foot in both segments of the market as we wait for the next generation of technology to eventually bridge the gap.

So if you are in the supply chain being urged by your customers to add capacity in preparation for the ramp up you better understand what the ramp up will actually look like rather than go by what is forecast. You don’t want to be caught flat footed, but you don’t want to be staring at idle people and equipment while you are waiting for the work to trickle through the supply chain.

Each supplier will determine when they will capitalize and hire new workers based on what they see in their crystal ball. Remember an airplane or engine can only be built as fast as the slowest suppliers….and no supplier wants to be that!

Merger Mania – Is Bigger Really Better?

With all of the consolidation going on in the aerospace industry do you ever wonder if it is really best for the industry? Can a smaller independent company survive and prosper in this marketplace? If so, what is the strategy for the future?

Often small/mid-size business owners are faced with the decision of whether to participate in the merger mania. The thoughts that go through our minds and keep us awake at night revolve around three choices:

To acquireto be acquired – or to hold the course and remain an independent company.

To Acquire: Typically a company requires outside capital to acquire another company and it involves risks. Outside capital can often lead to a loss of independence by being beholden to the investors whether it is a bank or a private equity firm. Conversely, a financially strong independent company can do the right things for the long term benefits of the company without the pressure of quarterly financial reporting. Quite often we all experience poor behavior by larger corporations doing whatever it takes to “make the quarter”. Personally, I do not want to be beholden to anyone, I want to do the right thing for the business long term.

I suppose another reason that holds some companies back from acquisition mode is that it requires a different set of skills and a deep bench of capable managers to properly manage and integrate the new organization. Typically, we are confident of our ability for organic growth in the existing business, but can find it daunting to enter into an entirely different organization and culture.

To be Acquired:  At times it can be tempting to consider being acquired. Market pressures sometimes make you concerned that your company will get shut out of access to the market. Other pressures are the increasing needs for sophisticated business systems – It used to be that you just needed to be good at manufacturing to be successful. Now you need to manage complex systems in ERP, process control, PPAP, etc. in addition to being world class in manufacturing. Combine that with the constant pressure to capitalize in order to keep up with the latest technology and you start to understand why so many companies decide to sell or merge with a larger organization.

Remaining Independent: Remaining independent is the correct course for many companies who recognize the pressures of the market and develop the right strategy. Typically it seems that these companies are experts in a focused product – one of the best in the world at what they do. They also develop a broad customer base and provide the customer with a total service of supplying assemblies and kits (not just parts).

So, in considering the various options you have to ask the question – is bigger really better? I don’t think so…… and certainly not just for the sake of being bigger.

The topic makes me reflect on what has gone on in other industries. For example, when the big box stores (Home Depot,etc.) first came out, I have to admit I was intrigued with everything under one roof. But, over the past few years I have begun to hate going to them……I never go to Home Depot anymore.

I finally stopped going when the service got so bad that they made me do my own check out with no one to help me. Why go there when I get just as good pricing and far better service at my local hardware store. The people are knowledgeable and the service is great!

I think the same thing is beginning to happen in our industry. Have you dealt with a large, bureaucratic, non-responsive company recently? Perhaps there is still a place for independent companies that are highly responsive, high tech, lean leaders in a focused product.