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Accelerating digital transformation at Pratt & Whitney: A case study


January 11, 2022  by Treena Hein

Over 1,100 airlines and 13,400 distinct customers worldwide currently use P&W engines. (Photo: Pratt & Whitney)

Digital transformation is something every company in the world is undergoing, small or large, without exception. To assist companies with this process, software providers have come up with a variety of innovative approaches, recognizing that each company differs from others and has its own unique needs. 

For extremely large companies like Quebec-based Pratt & Whitney (P&W), the process of digital transformation (DT) poses specific challenges that make certain approaches better than others. But before we look at the pain point the firm has been wrestling with for years – and the DT approach chosen for company-wide deployment in August 2021 – let’s get to know P&W a little better.

To give you an idea of its size, look no further than the company website which states that “every second, somewhere in the world, an aircraft takes off or lands under Pratt & Whitney power.” Globally, over 1,100 airlines and 13,400 distinct customers are currently using P&W engines – about 63,000 of them, in airplanes and helicopters in both commercial and military spheres. 

To keep its customers in the air, P&W also offers services relating to maintenance and repairs, parts shipping, engineering and more from over 30 designated service facilities. Mobile repair teams are always ready for dispatch, as is the largest pool of rental and exchange engines in the industry. P&W’s workforce totals 10,000 employees, with 6,000 in Canada. 

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The company also invests extensively in research and development, and has released about 100 new engines over the past 25 years. It also manufactures auxiliary power units.

Digital transformation challenges

For large firms, DT is a process that involves a lot of thought and effort. Going digital certainly requires modifying and streamlining existing business processes, but generally also the creation of new processes – and all of this while serving customers and keeping up with the pace of business change. But while it’s not easy, DT is a must because digital processes provide greater efficiencies, elimination of errors, better customer experiences and higher profits. It’s also a process that will never be complete.

As the DT process moves forward, company leadership must constantly analyze how well the process is working. At P&W, the main struggle has centered on the fact that their DT approach was not capable of providing the speed required. The pressures from cost, scale and rapid business environment change have all been converging constantly, as they do for any business, making the need for a new approach to DT at P&W very clear. 

“By the time you deliver a few DT projects, more projects will be needed as the digital world is in constant evolution,” explains Jocelyn Brule, P&W digital technology manager. “Budget and/or resources always seem too low to deliver all the requested projects as well as supporting the existing landscapes. Even with increased budgets and resources, creating the right level of cost-effective DT capacity remains a challenge.”

Brule adds that “in addition, solutions proposed by DT too often do not make business sense. Between the user-developed Excel solutions and the typical DT project, the cost difference is so wide that very few projects get done. Adding more money and resources is not the only way. DT needs to think differently so it can deliver simple, robust and secure solutions 10 to 100 times faster and cheaper. Only the sum of many initiatives will really transform a company.” 

He and his colleagues felt certain that low-code solutions represent “one element of the puzzle to accelerate transformation velocity and create enough capacity to keep up the pace.” In August, P&W announced they would be using Webcon’s low-code process automation platform across the company, based on its previous positive experience with the system.

Past success

P&W had been using low-code platforms to digitize business processes since 2013, and had employed ‘Webcon BPS’ in its Poland division to streamline a variety of operational processes and workflows related to manufacturing there. 

In August, Brule explained publicly that Webcon BPS had been chosen by P&W for global roll-out “due to the efficiency, transparency and speed by which we’ve been able to use it to deliver business applications, and how easily the platform enables change management.” Specifically, the platform was chosen for its unique emphasis on helping employees manage change requests from end users and continually adapt applications to ever-evolving business needs.

Webcon, based in Europe, specializes in low-code platforms. For international companies in particular, Webcon BPS is a popular choice. It’s now used by over 650 firms, including Siemens Finance, Mitsubishi Electric and Diners Club. 

The low down on low-code

Low-code (and no-code) DT tools have been developed due to the growing need for affordable and flexible digital applications amidst a scarcity of programmers. Low-code platforms offer the same or better performance, ease-of-use and security that would be very expensive in a custom-coded application (which require lots of coding hours). Low-code platforms also allow for the quick and easy addition of new functionalities.

As Webcon explains, flexibility in digital tools is a must these days because projects are now launched at lightning speed, with significant, direct involvement of end-users and because many factors can rear their heads during project development. These factors can include unexpected issues during scaling up from a prototype to the production-ready version, requirements found to be incomplete, business condition changes and much more. 

Delivery of benefits

In terms of why the low-code approach was chosen by P&W, Brule first explains that many similar approaches, for example Documentum, SharePoint and other third-party add-ons, had already been tried and used with success. 

“For simple business processes, we could deliver good solutions with those technologies,” he says, “but as soon as requirements became more complex, costs and lead times were exploding because of the custom code needed to deliver appropriate simple solutions. With the deep toolbox provided by the Webcon framework, we are able to achieve a lot more of those complex requirements without any coding. This allowed us to cut down on project delivery lead-times and costs by a huge factor.”

The first challenge being addressed with Webcon is the replacement of hundreds of legacy paper forms. “With most employees working remotely [due to the pandemic], getting paper forms to be signed became even harder than before,” says Brule. “Many of those paper-based business processes were highly complex and could never justify a digitalization project. With Webcon, we are now able to cost-effectively deliver these solutions.”

Brule further observes that “the need to print-sign-scan-send as attachment (and hope nothing gets lost) has been replaced by workflows in a database. Built into the framework comes automated task tracking, and reminder and process dashboards that provide the necessary building blocks to then allow our users to optimize their business processes.”

Now, not only is P&W’s DT better equipped to deliver solutions, but internal customers quickly find opportunities to improve their own processes because of the newly-gained visibility the platform provides. Both parties gain in productivity, says Brule, with everyone benefiting from more insight into their process and more understanding of where lead times can be improved.

P&W is very happy with the results so far. Brule reports that due to their DT team expertise now ramping up, “our internal customers are delighted and the throughput continues to grow.”  

Treena Hein is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ontario.

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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