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How an aerospace supplier reduced its Turn-around Time by tracking work orders

The lasting demand for commercial aircrafts requires both manufacturers and suppliers to increase their production capacity. A leading metal parts supplier decided to tackle this challenge by implementing a work order tracking solution, which would not only reduce waiting time between steps, but also provide a better visibility on the overall operations. 

Turn-around Time, sinew of industrial war 

Production capacity gets traditionally increased by investing into new production resources (new plants, new lines, new machines, etc), but even the most innovative and efficient equipment can’t always be the answer to all industrial issues. Especially when investment effort in this direction had already been made. 

The waiting time between the different production steps is a major component of the overall TaT, and therefore its reduction should be one of the first objectives. It makes a better use of existing resources, and helps to optimise future industrial investments. 

This is the case of this metal parts supplier, which needed to reduce its turnaround time from 16 to a drastic 6 weeks, in order to keep up with the pace set by its main clients, Airbus and Boeing. To reach this goal, each second counted and had to be saved. And without any surprise, they looked at the waiting time in priority, as a Lean Six Sigma waste which must be removed at all cost.. 

Machines are better than humans at updating statuses

When the Industrial Performance Manager analysed the reasons behind the waiting times, he found several causes which are pretty much in line with the analysis by Lean Manufacturing Tools  :

  • Unbalanced processes, with idle time between each
  • Unreliable processes, causing breakdown, maintenance, and therefore delays
  • Material handling bottlenecks, when forklifts need to move batches of parts from inventory to an assembly work station
  • Lack of information, when the status of the work order is not up to date.

Optimisations on the first 3 had already been conducted, so the main driver for waiting time reduction was “Lack of information”. In other words, work order status and detail were not up to date. 

Initially the manufacturer started to apply Lean Manufacturing principles, and used paper l Kanban boards, actually not so far away from the original Toyota model.

Toyota Production System (TPS) – source:

This was ok but with two main caveats : first, operators had to repeatedly go back and forth to the board, in order to retrieve the information, and second, information accuracy relied heavily on operators’ correct and timely data entry.

Then the manufacturer moved to digital kanban board, by replacing the paper exercise by a barcode system. Operators now just had to scan a barcode on the work order, and a barcode on the work station, in order to update the status. The Kanban view could now be digitalised and available to all using a computer,  without having to walk to the physical board. This solved the first initial caveat, but not the one of data integrity.

The switch to automated Kanban using work order tracking

The Industrial Performance Manager met Ubudu at a large trade fair about Industry 4.0 in Paris. He was attracted by a poster with “IoT for Lean” as headline. There, he explained to us his waiting time problem, and asked if our asset tracking system could be a solution. 

Yes it was. By pairing UWB tags to the work orders’ plastic boxes, and locating them accurately when they moved into/from a workstation or stock area, we were able to have an accurate and real-time view of the whole production process. Furthermore, alerts could be automatically triggered in the case of any variation versus the baseline : excessive waiting time, excessive processing time, excessive or insufficient stock level, etc. 

Also, some work orders could be stored in unusual zones, due to lack of room. Having access to their actual localisation became an extra benefit, allowing operators to save time by not having to search for those anymore. 

Given the 4,000 work orders that must go through 9 production units during a production cycle, and 16 weeks on average duration per production cycle, that’s a saving of 260 hours, or about 50,000 euros per year. 

On top of that, having the real-time visibility on the whole process helped the manufacturer to identify new pain points to work on, giving him the tool to apply continuous improvement, in line with its imperative to increase capacity. 

Victor Hugo once said “Dare, this is the price for progress”. For having dared to implement an innovative IoT solution, this aerospace metal parts supplier had now cemented its relationship with aircraft manufacturers and strengthened its leadership on the market.