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PLM takes off: Aircraft parts supplier reaches new heights


March 20, 2009
By Michelle Morra

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Lannding gear has come a long way since the sled-like skis of the Wright Brothers’ glider in 1901. Fortunately, so have the methods for engineering and manufacturing.

For more than 65 years, Heroux Devtek has been one of the aircraft industry’s most trusted suppliers in both the commercial and military sectors. The landing gear division, whose products are crucial to aircraft operation and safety, operates from four manufacturing sites – a large finishing centre in Longueuil, Que., a manufacturing plant in Laval, Que., a small machine shop in Riviere-des-Prairies, Que., and a large manufacturing facility in Kitchener, Ont.

While engineering creates designs that must meet the operational and safety requirements of a system’s design, manufacturing makes its own preparations to ensure it can be machined within quality and safety tolerances at a competitive price. Achieving these goals requires ongoing communication between both groups during design development.

Nagi Homsy, the company’s vice-president of engineering, is responsible for ensuring that all products are assembled, delivered and certified. His design group consists of designers, engineers, quality assurance people, manufacturing experts, buyers, co-ordinators and several other specialists who share the common goal of delivering an assembled product to the finishing centre. He works in an office located four km from the Longueuil site.

“That’s why I need a lot of co-ordination,” says Homsy.

Until 2003, team collaboration required frequent trips between the manufacturing and engineering department to consult on designs in development. The landing gear division operated that way for decades, with commercial success, but had room for better efficiency internally.

What triggered the search for a PLM system was a recurring issue concerning released drawings and models. Sometimes it was hard to tell which model had been used to create which drawing. If someone needed clarification on a drawing, Homsy’s first reaction was to go back to the model to see how it was made so he could answer the question.

“But if I found three different models, I couldn’t be sure which one was used to prepare that particular drawing. It became a nightmare. I had to do a lot of research to find out which one was which.”

In some cases, three designers might have worked at different times on the same model, resulting in three different configurations. So when engineering released the drawing, it was often difficult to tell the latest configuration or the right model to use.

To solve this issue, the company adopted a technology that would bridge the physical distance between engineering and manufacturing, and create a real-time environment – Dassault Systemes’ ENOVIA SmarTeam, a PLM system that manages all data associated with every project and provides data vaulting and version control.

“With SmarTeam, we cannot go wrong,” says Homsy. “We can get all the history of all the parts and all the changes.”

Heroux Devtek also adopted CATIA V5, a CAD system that has become an industry standard, and SmartWeb, an application that enables secure remote access to the SmarTeam project database from standard Internet browsers. Engineering uses CATIA V5 to generate the 3-D designs it shares with manufacturing via SmartWeb. CATIA V5 allows designs to be seen from any angle or cross-sectioned for interior views. When working on an OEM’s CATIA V5 design, engineers experience no conversion delays. This allows them to work with OEMs earlier in the design stage than before.

SmarTeam drives product knowledge throughout the product life cycle, enabling collaboration across multiple sites, suppliers and customers. It integrates seamlessly with CATIA V5 and various other CAD systems, as well as gateways with other enterprise product data management (PDM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. SmarTeam’s vaulting system is also vital to maintaining the detailed records and audit trails required by airline industry regulatory agencies.

“I don’t think I can live without it now because of the horror stories I had in the past,” says Homsy. “We did work without a PLM system for a long time, and we suffered for it.”

He recalls a Heroux Devtek employee who had worked for three years to develop software for landing gear. After he quit his job in the 1990s, no one knew where to find the program. “It was only a few years later that someone else who had worked here at the time said he happened to have a copy,” says Homsy. “He shouldn’t have taken it, but in other ways I was sure glad he did.”

The landing gear division had more than one issue like that, he says, and lost valuable data in cyberspace. That’s why Homsy calls the new vaulting system invaluable. It has made a dramatic improvement by housing and tracking all data in one place instead of it being stored in different ways, by different people, and scattered across dozens of workstations. Everything is in the vault now, including drawings, documents and test results. SmarTeam allows users to know when a document was created, who created it, who made a change along the line, as well as when and why they made it. There have been no further problems over losing control of configurations.

Besides design traceability, Heroux Devtek enjoys having the ability to identify more design improvements earlier in the development cycle, thereby improving manufacturability and quality while reducing costs. With the PLM, they can identify and follow through on more opportunities than were possible before.

Today, design advances at the same time as the manufacturing planning. “It’s a constant,” says Homsy. “We don’t want to get to the end and have everyone say, ‘Oh no, this cost has increased by 20 percent.’ Then it’s too late to do something. By doing this we are constantly aware of the total picture at the end, on all the components.”

PLM has benefitted the company in other big ways. SmartWeb eliminates the need for bulky e-mails. By logging onto the system, users can open design drawings, view them and manipulate them without overloading the system.

“The other advantage of SmartWeb is we don’t need to install any software on any computer,” says Dominique Lepore, of RAND North America, a Dassault distributor. “If you have access on the network, you can log onto SmartWeb, see the parts, even in 3-D. The designer and engineer can look at the same design at the same time from different locations.”

Compare that to the painstaking process of translating data between formats, or to the days when showing someone a design involved printing a hard copy and hopping into a car. In the pre-PLM days, valuable time was spent physically travelling to another site to consult with someone in person to look over a design. It’s 600 km between Longueil and the main manufacturing plant in Kitchener (a particularly unpleasant trip in winter). While team members still like to meet face to face on occasion, SmartWeb has removed much unnecessary travel. Heroux Devtek is licensed for concurrent access of 60 users. A total of about 200 people use the system, up to 60 at a time.

The company’s engineers also appreciate CATIA V5’s surface analysis capabilities, which they use to identify potential flaws in their designs that could interfere with manufacturability.

Heroux Devtek’s landing gear division has achieved maximum efficiency with its newfound ability, which Homsy describes as “design to cost, not design at any cost.”

“The SmarTeam platform is used as a collaboration platform for the function of designs for manufacturing,” Lepore adds.

Having a PLM system has resulted in more frequent communication and consultation at the landing gear site, as well as improved time-to-market and product quality, streamlined manufacturing requirements and reduced production costs. It has substantially cut down on late-cycle changes required to improve manufacturability or reduce rejected parts.

“Things will happen during the course of designing,” says Homsy. “It’s the nature of the industry. But once you become aware of it, you can react to it. If you wait ’til the end, it’s too late to react.”

He would never go back, but jokes with his distributor that software is always expensive. Regardless, when other companies ask him if buying a PLM was worthwhile, he says, “I always tell them I’m completely sold on the idea. It does work.”

For any other software he likes to calculate ROI, but for this one, he says, “I don’t want to even try to put numbers on it. Whether I can afford not to have it is more of a question. I need it. This is a tool I need to have to operate in today’s environment.”

Michelle Morra is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ont.