Even during a late afternoon visit, Avio Aero’s factory in Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples, is abuzz. It is not only because the Italian propulsion systems manufacturer is engaged in the fastest engine ramp-up in peacetime – the plant makes low-pressure turbine vanes and the combustor for the CFM International Leap engine that powers all Boeing 737 Max aircraft and is one of two options for the Airbus A320neo. Avio Aero is also five years into what chief executive Riccardo Procacci describes as a “transformation” under owner GE Aviation. That process involves overhauling each of its sites with new equipment, but also in the way employees are organised and think about their job.
At the plant, where Avio Aero is also, in another dedicated hall, gearing up for volume production of the low-pressure turbine for the Boeing 777X’s GE9X, traditional process- or functional-based departments have largely been scrapped. Instead, shop floor staff work in self-contained, colour-coded zones, focusing on one product.
As he leads us around decades-old buildings packed with new machinery, Marco Rossi, Avio Aero’s lean leader at the Pomigliano plant, explains that the idea is to have as many functions as possible in one cell. This in turn reduces the time wasted every time a component – or a worker – has to move from one area of the factory to another.
Everywhere charts detail not just production numbers and targets, but how many kilometres of transporting parts around the shop floor the company has saved by rearranging an area in a certain way, which he says is very much the “GE way”.
If this means employees are getting less exercise by walking than they used to, Avio Aero is certainly becoming leaner as a result, he says. The cell-based approach also encourages a “sense of ownership” among each team member. “It’s about bringing accountability, visibility, responsibility down to machine level, rather than something that only concerns the executive office,” he says.
Neither is working in self-contained cells within the factory something that encourages employees to adopt an insular outlook, Rossi insists. While the notice boards record how teams are performing relative to others, staff are encouraged to look at what colleagues in other groups are achieving, and to share and learn from best practice. This is something that Avio Aero management are also encouraged to do between factories. As Rossi notes: “It’s about democratising data. Each team knows how they are performing. You cannot improve what you don’t measure.”
According to Procacci, who is based at Avio Aero’s headquarters and largest factory near Turin – there are others in Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast, and in Poland – the company’s physical and cultural change is “in full swing, but we are not done by any means”. Four of the five years since GE’s acquisition of the Italian firm were spent “establishing the basis for us to win the right to get to the new phase of transformation”, he says. Now, he says, the company is undergoing a lean manufacturing revolution that is “really about how we activate and engage our 4,800 people, not just the managers”.
Just over half of Avio Aero’s revenues come from work carried out for its internal customer or its CFM International partner Safran. The Leap and the GE9X, which is due to fly on the 777-9 next year, as well as the new general aviation Catalyst engine, are the key emerging programmes.
“These are the ones that are ramping up or getting ready for ramp-up and will define the company for the next 20 to 30 years,” says Procacci. In addition, legacy products such as the CFM International CFM56, as well as the GE Aviation GE90 and GEnx “are still very crucial, and help to pay our bills today”, he says.
However, other customers remain important, and Avio Aero has held onto almost all of its third-party business since the takeover, including the accessory drive train on Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000 family. Avio Aero has a 4% stake in Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PW800 family for the Gulfstream G500/G600 and Dassault Falcon 6X business jets and supplies combustors for the PT6 family.
On the military side, it makes the power gearbox for the Airbus Military A400M’s Europrop International TP400 and has a 20% share in the Eurofighter Typhoon’s Eurojet EJ200. Firewalls are strong and “we behave as a good business partner to our third-party customers”, insists Procacci.
As far as developments are concerned, the major areas of focus for Avio Aero – reflecting its current portfolio of products – are gearbox technologies, both power and accessory, low-pressure turbines, and combustion systems.
Avio Aero has also invested heavily in additive layer manufacturing, and is in, what Proccaci describes as, an “industrialisation phase”, with its Cameri centre of excellence, near Milan, “getting ready to build [titanium aluminide GE9X low-pressure turbine] blades by their thousands from next year”. The company is also expanding its Brindisi factory to host new machines that will laser-print the 12 or so parts it is producing for the Catalyst.
Avio Aero is also carrying out research with the Polytechnic Univerity of Bari into the potential of using additive technology for repair. “We are really pushing the technology of what EMB [electron beam melting] can do,” says Procacci.
Other important research and development projects include the latest iteration of the European Commission’s Clean Sky initiative, designed to reduce emissions, noise and carbon dioxide produced by aircraft. “Our aspiration is to become a programme leader on a system level, using our experience of the Catalyst engine,” says Procacci. “It is something we are focusing on with other European companies with a view to joining forces.”