Pontifications: Small suppliers prepare for production transformation

By Scott Hamilton

March 12, 2018 © Leeham Co.: When it comes to preparing for increasing automation, robotics and transforming the way airliners will be built in the future, focus rests primarily on the big OEMs and suppliers.

The small suppliers also must prepare for this transformation.

Tool Gauge of Tacoma (WA) is one such company. I sat down with Jim Lee, manager of sales and marketing, at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance conference last month in Lynnwood (WA) to talk about transformation.

The Southeast Aerospace & Defence Conference looks at the Transformation in production and building for the future. It’s June 25-27 in Mobile (AL).

Investing as a small company

“I’ve been asked about the Internet of Things. You think you have a problem, but you really don’t know. You have cost accounting and it’s hard to make an ROI case when you don’t really know what the potential value of the problem is,” Lee said in the interview on the sidelines of the PNAA event.

“If it’s a small problem, do you want to spend a lot of money to fix it? No, we don’t. If it’s a big problem, we certainly do,” he said. “There are some things we can do

that are absolutely intuitive. You don’t have to have data to tell us we need to work on this.”

Jim Lee of Tool Gauge. Source” Tool Gauge.

For example, Lee said that in manufacturing plastics, Tool Gauge uses injection molding. It’s very repetitive.

“We think there’s a strong business case for automating that using…robots to pick parts, not just to set it on the table, because then you haven’t really eliminated any labor. You pick the part and maybe do an inspection, to do some value-added work while it’s in control of the robot and then you count it and then box it,” he said.

“Then you’ve eliminated the actual variability there. You have a much more consistent process.”

Requiring consistency

Tool Gauge, which primarily makes plastic parts, is but one of many companies making thermoplastics.

“The thermoplastic process likes to be very, very consistent, so every part is exactly alike,” Lee said.

Automation will be key, especially for the repetitive work. “[That’s] not fun work, it’s not good for your career, it’s hard to find people who are willing to do that work in Tacoma, where we’re located. We need more people in the company, so do we want to train them to sit there and do assemblies or do we want to figure out a way to assemble it automatically? Then we can take people and give them better jobs.

“We’re going to bet on automation,” Lee says.

From 777X to 797

A key element of the business case for the Boeing “797” or New Midrange Airplane (NMA) is cutting production costs. Boeing’s business case for the 787 rested in part on automation and “snap-together” airplane sections. Execution was famously a disaster, but even in this chaos, elements were used that have application on the 777X and will have even more on the 797.

Tool Gauge plans to be ready for the 797.

“We want to be fully capable of doing that kind of automation. We’re on contracts now for the 777X that go to full ramp toward the end of the first seven-year contract. We can’t wait seven years,” Lee said.

“We know of some of the components we make that are ripe for that kind of automation. We need to do it really quickly.”

Tool Gauge makes interior plastics for the 777X, both cosmetic and functional parts. The cosmetic parts include doors, trim pieces, class dividers and handles. Functional parts are made for the air and galley systems, for example. The company also makes parts that are critical to flight, such as parts in the wing that hold the fuel line.

Lee says the company “really did well on the 787. We’ve got a very large contract on the 787 over an eight-year contract. We have a ton of 737 parts.”

Automation by Tool Gauge is used on the 737 and 787 programs. “They’re in production so long that you can rationalize automation and the capital against those programs,” he says.

Preparing for the future

Lee said that the “tent pole” for Tool Gauge right now is that the current factory in Tacoma is more than 50 years old. The warehouse is in an old railroad maintenance building.

“We’re out of room,” he says. “We’re putting all our eggs into the basket of let’s put up a new facility.”

When Tool Gauge finishes the new building, installing robotics during the phased construction, Lee wants the equipment to be in place for primary and secondary manufacturing.

“The timing for us is well in front of the 797,” he says. “We want to be ready for that.”

Cutting costs now for the future

Lee said that because plastics are petroleum products that are certain to increase in costs over the seven-year life of a contract, trying to build in price hikes is difficult. So, Tool Gauge attacks the cost side through greater efficiencies.

“We’re already locked in in order to meet our margin objectives to doing whatever we have to do [on costs] in order to maintain our margins,” he says. “We know by looking at our processes there are a lot of things we can do. We can do some value-stream mapping. We can do some lean initiatives. We can get cost savings. We can get low-hanging fruit.”

About Tool Gauge

Tool Gauge, through interior manufacturer Zodiac, is a supplier to Airbus. It currently does not supply Bombardier. The company will be a supplier, via Zodiac, on the Mitsubishi MRJ when this airplane eventually proceeds to deliveries. Tool Gauge sells directly to Boeing.

Two thirds of the business is plastics and the balance is machine metals. The vast majority of the latter is for Boeing Global Services and its product/parts support to in-service airplanes.

Tool Gauge expects to double in size in the next four or five years, based on contracts in hand. The privately-held company has 130 employees. Sales should double with another 100-150 employees by 2022 when the 777X is at full rate.

20 Comments on “Pontifications: Small suppliers prepare for production transformation

  1. Well done, Scott. This was very interesting and informative. I wonder though about two technologies and where they fit in the company’s future: 1) additive manufacturing; and 2) blockchain. Did these come up during the interview?

  2. Nice to read, it would be interesting with more articles like this on automation of production of parts, Aircraft sections and assembly both in the US and EU.

  3. Similar to Claes, good article and would like to see more on a range of suppliers, their experiences, day to day issues, long term issues, insights etc.

    Meantime Scott, did you get any sense of how Tool Gauge’s (or any other similar supplier’s) role in overall product definition and design is changing?

    • @Woody, we didn’t talk about that. But I plan a future trip (it’s an hour’s drive) to Tool Gauge in the future, so I’ll try to remember to ask.

    • “https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/KUKA”

      household items here 🙂

      On a side note: Deutsche Bahn, the epitome of being behind the curve on some things is moving towards 3D printed parts for no longer available spares ( simple things: coat hanger hooks, door grips, …)

      injection molder: I do wonder if there is potential for 3D printing for the mold parts.
      Today this is a time and work intensive field for Electrical discharge machining.

  4. The Automatic Tape Laying Machines ATL for CFRP are impressive and I guess they will speed up and lay wider tapes. The analysis Tools for the shape of the Tools making the geomtry right when huge parts come out of the autoclave is essential. You also need robots crawling onto the CFRP structures in its fixtures drilling holes thru CRFP, Ti and other materials quick and accurate with a river robot following its steps. There might be lots of Titanium fasteners for internal structures that should be placed inside the CRFP structure while the ATL’s make detours around them making the fastners stick out of the CFRP after baking ready for the next robot to fit tubing and harnessess.

  5. Agreed it was a good article.

    I do have issues with empty statements.

    Clearly assembly is a job classification.

    Doing some other job is not.

    I worked a whole lot of careers, I started from the ground up (literally digging holes to put things in) .

    Schooling did not prepare me for much of anything as there was little practical application. Mostly I was fortunate to inherit my mothers reading abilities. I took typing in high school only because I got knocked on my writing appearance. That was the single most valuable thing I got from school as at age 34 or o I got thrust into the world of computers (and bless spell checking as typewrites do not spell check.) out)

    Eventually I worked out of labor end and into some fairly high tech. Good news was I could read and could handle it.

    So when someone says some other job, what they have to mean is electronics, mechanical, machine programing and practical application of math.

    Your normal parts assembler is not going to have the skills to make that shift (I was lucky, my mother was the one who talked me into my first computer, paid huge dividends in not just writing but understanding how they work, as well as operating system and then the use to be head end for accessing microprocessors that control equipment)

    Establishing a trade school path is the answer to the need.

    Paying people to their skill levels in also part of that.

    College is not for everyone and from the student load debt and debacles where the selected major will never pay off?

    • An adder to the comment that got cut off.

      Airlines used to hire promising candidate pilots and put them through school to get their ATR. It was not a full salary but you could eat on it.

      Now you have to try to put yourself through that and incur 100-200,000 to get that. They wonder why there is a pilot shortage? Pay them 15,000 a year to fly a local or regional aircraft? No one can live on that (let alone repay student debts)

      Unless and until business gets involved in the education system and offers alternatives (and there are some) then you will wind up with no parts assemblers and scrambling to find anyone to take care of the equipment.

      Decent wages are part of it.

      While I never was able t0 build much of a retirement, with no salary increases, I am better off to retire, I will get more money for it.

      I have always been an asset, they will loose that and I cannot be replaced.
      50 years of job experience and figu0uing out solutions is gone. Cost go up and they cut wages more but don’t understand why their cost go up.

  6. A few quick comments to the readers that were kind enough to post comments.

    Tool Gauge does have one FDM (additive manufacturing machine – plastic) and we are continuing to explore additive manufacturing within the metals arena. Our metals operations support BGS so everything we produce in metals is for out of production aircraft spares, for which we foresee little demand (or Boeing appetite for process spec changes) for SLS at this time.

    We are a make to print manufacturer. However we do spend a lot of time working with the OEM’s to arrive at the optimal product configuration. Both from a functionality as well as producibility perspective. For plastics we utilize Boeing CAD models and for metals, we actually start with 2D part prints and then create the models used to program our CNC machines.

    Regarding the automation part of the story, we plan to add as many collaborative robots as we can justify. But we also plan to add robots to each of our molding machines (17 at this time). Our strategy is focussed on finding methods that will allow us to become more labor efficient because we understand that we cannot be competitive on a global basis from a cost of labor approach. We are not focussed on replacing people, but rather, keeping the ones we have and allowing them to gain skills, earn higher wages, and become more cost effective than our competitors in countries with a labor cost advantage. Robotics is one of the tools we plan to utilize to this end.

    Again, thank you for all the kind comments.

    Jim Lee
    Sales and Marketing Manager
    Tool Gauge

    • Wow, appreciate this comment. And, block chain? Too early just yet?

      • Block chain. ? It doesnt seem to me they are in the type of parts that are certified by the FAA and need a ‘chain of authenticity’

        • Yes, it’s a bit early for Blockchain but we are FAA audited and AS9100 certified, along with DPD certification and a few others.

          • Jim: It sounds like a very good company to work for.

            A shame I am not 20 anymore.

  7. Great article.

    Can I make suggestion? For free content interviews like this, might you create a podcast or at least post an audio recording on YouTube?

    I don’t always have time to read all your articles, but if I could stick in my ears for my commute, dog-walks, or doing dishes, that would be great!

    Plus with enough listeners you could add a revenue stream with audio ads.

    Just a thought, keep up the good work.

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