At the end of fiscal year 2018, the T64 engine program was in trouble. Across the fleet, supply constraints contributed to ever-increasing turnaround times for engines inducted for overhaul or repair. At Fleet Readiness Center East, facilities constraints compounded the issue. The Navy’s H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters program office, also known as PMA-261, was facing a T64 inventory that fell more than 90 engines short of its engine readiness goal.
Fast-forward to August 3, 2020, when FRCE returned an engine to the fleet just 298 days after its induction – far sooner than the negotiated turnaround time of 472 days. The last time FRCE produced an engine in fewer than 300 days and in the same fiscal year in which it was inducted was in 2015. The team has produced 46 engines this fiscal year, and is on track to make the 2020 production goal of 54 engines, despite many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The skill and professionalism of the aircraft maintenance professionals working FRCE’s T64 engine line have been a constant, according to David Rose, director of the Engines and Dynamic Components Division within FRCE’s Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Production Department. What changed?
A healthy supply chain, functional test equipment and a total reorganization of the organizational structure at FRCE have contributed to an about-face in the program’s performance, with leaders now eyeing turnaround times in the 265- to 270-day range.
“It’s amazing what people can do when you give them the tools they need,” said Chris Day, FRCE’s Engines Branch lead. “To come into work and have everything you need, and be able to just do your job without all the roadblocks and distractions – that’s absolutely the key to success for any program.”
“The culture and the mindset in the shop has changed,” Rose added. “How frustrating is it to come into work and then you can’t do your job because you don’t have what you need? It starts to feel like it’s your fault because your shop’s not producing engines when, really, that’s not the case. These are the same people producing engines now and breaking records every time they sell one. Now we don’t have a reason to be frustrated, but rather excited and proud.”
BUILDING A BACKLOG
The backlog of work in progress began back in 2015, Day said. “The train hit the wall, and engines started coming in but not going out.” The shop was inducting 50-60 engines per year, but was only producing 20-25.
“The materials and facilities constraints we had put a work stop on some of our products as we were repairing them. Where we would ideally induct 50 and produce 50 within the year, we were inducting 50 and producing 20 – so those 30 carried over into the next year.
“The same thing happened in 2016, 2017 and 2018,” Day continued. “We inducted 50. We only produced 20. Now you have the old 30, plus a new 30, so that backlog started to pile up really high.”
Jason Webster, engines planner for the T64 platform, said part of the problem was finding a source for parts to replace “tired iron” – parts that have been reworked over and over again during the repair and overhaul process.
“The age and condition of these parts led to multiple test cell rejects,” meaning the engines didn’t pass established parameters during testing and would not be issued to the fleet, Webster explained. When an engine can’t be declared ready for issue (RFI), it goes back to the shop for inspection, repair and another round of testing, which leads to further delays.
“We finally determined that we couldn’t keep reworking some of these parts. We needed new. And when you do that, you make a dramatic shift in the replacement factor for that part,” Day said. “Because of this, we put a strain on the materials side. If I can’t fix it, can I buy it?”
Unfortunately, the parts needed weren’t readily available in the supply chain. That means a supplier must be identified and contracted – and that takes time.
Facilities constraints also contributed to the longer turnaround times. The engines branch utilizes support equipment that is unique to the program, Day said, and can’t be found elsewhere at FRCE. Issues with several of these items – including the test cell required to verify the engines as RFI – compounded the delays caused by parts availability and testing failures. At several points in 2018-2019, FRCE had to reach out to Marine Aircraft Logistics Squadron 29 at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, for test cell support.
At one point in 2019, the team produced a 2016 engine that had been at FRCE for more than 1,000 days.
“Obviously, from a fleet standpoint, that was a big concern, that they sent an engine into FRCE and it sat here for more than a thousand days before they got it back. Big concern,” Day remembered. “There were numerous things that just seemed to slap us upside the face. When things were going bad, they were going really bad.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
While the fruits of their labor have become readily visible in 2020, the team’s success story really begins the year before – in 2019.
“In 2019, we did a great job,” Day said. “Materials started getting a little healthier, our facilities problems were getting resolved, and 2019 became the start of our push to get rid of all this old stuff.
“We produced 51 engines that year, when in the previous years we were only hitting 20 or 25,” he continued. “We produced a lot of that backlog from ’15, ’16 and ’17; we just didn’t finish. Even though we had a great year, we were still averaging about 600 days turnaround time, because we were fighting old (work in progress).”
Work in progress, or WIP, is not necessarily a negative thing, Day noted. It’s simply a way of noting that an engine has been inducted for repair or overhaul.
“There’s what we call an ‘optimum WIP,’ where there is an amount of work that’s absolutely perfect for efficiency,” he explained. “For instance, we would induct four engines and sell four engines in the same month. At optimum WIP, you never have a peak of too much work, where you’re inducting four engines but you’re not selling anything. When that happens, you get more and more stuff sitting at the plant. You don’t want that bow wave of too much WIP, because the more things you’re working, the slower the process gets.”
“You don’t want three engines just sitting there, waiting to go in, because that turnaround time is just adding up,” Webster added.
And that’s where the problems arise, Rose said. “Aged WIP, which is WIP that goes past its projected turnaround time, is a negative thing. That means one of the logistical process elements have failed, and that’s why it’s still sitting here.”
Improvements in the supply chain have made a difference, Rose said, as has enormous effort put forth by the facilities and infrastructure management team at FRCE, and a shared sense of urgency with the Industrial Processes Division’s back shops that provide the routed parts and services the engine shop relies on to get the job done. Everyone has shouldered part of the load to reduce WIP, from the Naval Engine Airfoil Center, which processes the engine’s blades and vanes, to the fuel control shop, rotor assembly and balance shop, machine shop, clean and paint shops, packaging and preservation, and FRCE’s engineers.
Daily Tier 1 shop meetings put in place during FRCE’s transition to a mission-aligned organization have also led to improvements, Webster said. The meetings helps raise awareness of any inhibitors to the shop manager, planners and production controllers, so they can help find solutions. The new structure’s emphasis on delegating authority to the lowest possible levels leads to greater collaboration and faster fixes.
“I can go out to the other branches, to my counterparts and the branch heads, and say, ‘Hey, I need your help,’” he explained. “I can ask them to put some focus on a specific part in their shop that we need for an engine assembly, and they can find a way to do that.”
“There has been a lot of creative thinking, a lot of coming together and thinking outside the box to keep things moving,” Rose said. “The communications piece has been the game-changer. Everybody knows what the goals and objectives are and the attitude is, ‘How can we safely do it? How can we get it done with quality?’”
“Every entity in the plant that touches a T64 part has done a tremendous job,” Day added.
ON LEVEL GROUND
Following its stellar performance in 2019, the T64 shop set its sights on clearing the remaining aged WIP and working on 2020 engines.
“We were trying to fight our way out of a hole,” Day said. “We’ve pretty much filled in that hole now, and we’re on level ground. We’re finishing what we started last year. The engines we’re selling now are looking like they’re going to be in the 265-270 day range. That’s a dramatic change from the beginning of last year to where we wanted to be this year, and where we are now.”
Day said when he was met with hesitance when he first set the goal of selling a 2020 induction during 2020.
“We had some doubters, based on our past few years’ record,” he admitted. “But our goal was to clear out the rest of that backlog and get back on track. (Webster) put a plan together and the team executed nearly flawlessly. It took a lot of effort; we pushed hard for it.”
The first 45 engines FRCE sold in 2020 were WIP from 2018 and 2019, but then it happened: August 3, the team sold an engine that had been inducted in 2020.
“We put our money where our mouth is,” Day said. “The program office was hesitant about giving us engines that were going to sit here for a thousand days. We’ve had to get this aged WIP out the door and show them that we can produce engines in a fraction of the time we were producing them before. And we did.
“At the beginning of the year, when we set our goal, I think everybody was wondering how the heck we were going to produce 54 engines,” he continued. “But we put our plan in place, and we stuck to it, and we made sure everybody on the team knew that this is our goal. So, for example, everyone from the production controllers to the people loading engines to the shop knows that in the month of August we need to sell five T64 engines, and that engine sitting over there is our last August engine. We need to do whatever we can to make sure that engine goes out. It’s a big difference from years past, where the goal was to just keep building until we tell you to stop – and we’ll never tell you to stop.”
EYE ON THE FUTURE
Moving forward, the team plans to keep productivity high by continuing to find efficiencies using continuous process improvement methods.
“I think our efficiency, direct and indirect, has never been better,” Rose said. “But I think we’re going to make ongoing improvements by doing a better job of seeing a problematic situation coming and getting ahead of that. You’re always going to want to squeeze out every bit of that lemon that you can.”
“We had a big, huge improvement,” Day agreed. “We dug ourselves out of that hole, and now we’re looking for incremental improvements. That’s the type of smaller improvements where we bring in our performance engineers and ask them how they can help us improve some of our processes, make things a little bit faster or more efficient, a little bit better.”
Areas like first-time yield – the measure of how many engines are designated ready for issue after just one trip to the test cell – offer avenues for improvement. Bringing this number up in 2019 helped pave the way for the team’s success in 2020. Rose called the improvement a “hidden success,” noting that in past years engines could fail testing two, three or even four times. This leads to labor hours being taken away from the next engine in line for assembly.
“Because the parts and material are newer, and we don’t have that tired iron, we’re seeing fewer test cell rejects,” he said. “Engineering has addressed and solved some issues, and we’re just not seeing the multiple rejects often anymore. That’s been a huge part of the success, because they’re going through the first time on the test cell.”
Success stories like these, at FRCE and squadrons across naval aviation, have helped PMA-261 increase T64 engine readiness. The program now sits fewer than 20 shy of its engine readiness goal.
“This allows the type commander to have T64 engines readily available on the shelf to feed each squadron and ship, if need be,” Webster noted.
With the FRCE T64 team humming on all cylinders, Day and Webster said they’re looking for an even more successful 2021.
“Looking forward into next year, (we) are putting plans together,” Day said. “Whether they’re lofty goals or not, we’re challenging ourselves and our team to actually cut that turnaround time even further. We have a lot of challenges with that, and we recognize what those challenges are.”
“Our team is working hard and we have set goals to surpass the milestones we achieved this year,” Webster added. “FRCE artisans are the key to the success of the engine program. They are capable of getting the product to the fleet. (Fiscal year 2020) shows that with a good supply chain, parts availability and the ability to work through small problems before they become big problems, the engine readiness goal is in sight.”
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