By Michael Hissam
A long-standing bastion of automotive in Mexico now hosts a growing aerospace industry.
Manufacturing and fabricating skills found in the Saltillo region serve an important purpose for Senior Aerospace in Mexico as that company deals with unique requirements from demanding customers.
Aldo Rodriguez, general manager, Senior Aerospace Mexico, pointed out that his Saltillo-based operations depends on customer-specified U.S. suppliers to provide material to be crafted into least weight, greatest tensile strength product that the company can provide.
At the same time, Senior has reached out to leading educational institutions looking for training engineers to be ready for the changes forecast for Mexico:
Senior Aerospace, what do you produce and what are your markets in or out of Mexico?
Senior Aerospace Mexico is one operating company with the group. Senior is a big group around the world with 30 operations in 12 countries. The companies are $1 billion in sales around the world. The headquarters, headquartered in the United Kingdom. My particular business unit is in Saltillo, Mexico. We make components, some assemblies and details for fuselage, for helicopter cabins and some welding for fabrication for industrial turbines.
What types of metal and what are aerospace requirements for metal? What is changing? We keep thinking weight but what about strength and material?
All the materials are definitely lightweight, high strength. We mostly use aluminum alloys in the range of 60, 61, 70, 75, those are high alloy aluminum. We also use titanium, nickel based alloys like inconel and similar metals. These are all procured in the U.S. They need to be from specific sources, from specific mills that are mandated from our customers. There are only a handful of mills in North America that are qualified by our end customers.
Weight, the relationship between weight and strength is critical and these parts have been designed to get the least possible weight to the structure with the most possible strength. These may be very thin from twelve-thousandth of an inch up to one-eighth of an inch. These are the typical components that you see in a fuselage skins, ribs and other supports in the air frame.
At first glance it appears that Senior’s work in Mexico was labor intensive, lower tech, but you say there’s a change in that. What is driving the change and where is it going?
We took advantage of labor intensive work but it is capital intensive at this point. There is a lot of hand labor attached to this type of components. You need to take into consideration these are low-volume, high-mix components. We could even compare them to service parts in some cases, depending on the model of the aircraft we are building components for. We have a mix of high-labor, low-complexity. In some cases we have evolved into more complexity.
Since 2010 we have been adding more assembly work, more machining work. There is a shift in the strategy right now continuing with high-labor work but putting more and more technology on it – multi-axis machining, assembly, chemical processing and special.
To what do you attribute your reported exceptionally high level of quality and productivity?
The exceptional levels are really attached to the result of our strategy for making sure the people understand exactly what is expected from them. Following clear instructions and making sure that people have the skill level and the competence level and the training to execute the type of work they are attempting to at this point.
Let us go to the future. What are customers telling you to prepare for, especially in that aerospace has to look long into the future?
They are talking about the life cycle of the product that we are building or helping to build. Those airplanes are going to be in service 40 or 50 years, this is very long-term strategy. Our customers are demanding from us, from the supply chain in Mexico to get ready because there is a huge shift to bring more and more activity into this country.
We must be prepared to have more qualified assemblers, more qualified engineers, technicians for the long term, 10, 15, 20 years ahead. We need to be prepared to be more value added, more complex machining, more assembly, more metal finishing in components and more interaction with design for improvements in the future. More engineering work, not only labor but more mind applied to the product, more improvements, more lean efficiencies and ways to do the products better, faster, cheaper.
As a senior executive with Senior, what messages do you take to the government regarding education and preparedness?
I also have the opportunity, I am very proud to be part of several council and groups that work within FEMIA and other groups in Mexico helping to develop training for future engineers, future technicians. We have interacted with the National Aeronautic University in Querétaro (UNAQ) and other institutions to make sure that training and curriculum is well designed to align with the needs of the industry.
My proposal or message to the government, I have said this many times, we need to make sure we are ahead of the curve, we need to put the resources ahead of the need, we need to align budgets and align the money spent across the country in labs, schools and institutions to make sure we have a clear, common strategy. The government applies the money where it needs to be, we do not need redundancy. We do not need too many labs doing the same type of testing.
We may need to go back and make an inventory or what is out there in Mexico already and then stay looking ahead twenty years. The government has the resources, we need to make sure we coordinate correctly and the government makes decisions and takes ownership of the strategy long-term to avoid having too much redundancy or too many institutions doing or attempting to do the same thing and competing against each other.
You have what many would consider a smaller operation. Share some of the lessons learned about a smaller-sized operation in Mexico? What is the key to make it work?
Companies such as our operations are like the bricks that put the foundation together to support the whole infrastructure that eventually puts together an airplane. We need many bricks like Senior Aerospace Mexico in the country.
We are a small/medium sized operations, we belong to a large corporation but our operation is quite small, growing and we need many examples like ours. We need to be careful and pick the best talent and make sure that we keep that talent in our organization because the competence is out there. The automotive industry is requesting hundreds and thousands of people. We need to make sure that we invest in people and make sure that we focus on keeping them inside and always motivated to learn more.
I focus a lot on people. I focus a lot on advancements in technology, make sure that we stay aware, alert through events and what is happening in the world to get the best possible software, innovations, tools in place so we are prepared for the future. We are always looking ahead.