By Michael Hissam
When it comes to aerospace, discussion usually centers on fuel efficiency, lighter weight, aerodynamics and quieter operation at the airplane level– nothing new in that part of the conversation.
What now gains prominence within that exchange of views is the term “nacelle system,” referring to the complex, aerodynamic structure that surrounds a jet engine.
Mexico has begun to play an important role in nacelle systems – so much so that UTC Aerospace Systems makes nacelle systems and components for eight different platforms from locations in the country. That thought warrants additional interest considering UTC Aerospace Systems – Aerostructures opened in Mexicali a little more than six years ago, according to Bijan Latifzadeh, Director of Operations Strategy and Development– Mexico for UTC Aerospace Systems – Aerostructures, a member of the UTC family.
You are the director of Operations and Strategy and Development - Mexico for your Aerostructures business. First, your Mexican operations, where are they; what are their major products?
We are in our seventh year of operations in Mexicali. We established our facility back in 2008 with special processes in cold forming, hot forming and other forms of fabricating nacelle components.
The nacelle includes the inlet which controls the airflow into the engine; the fan cowl, which protects the engine and is hinged at the top to open for servicing the engine, the thrust reverser which helps the airplane stop when landing by reversing the flow of engine air, and the nozzle and exhaust. The exhaust is just like the muffler in a car -- at the end of the nacelle system that gets the hot air out of the engine.
In what cities in Mexico are UTC Aerospace operations located? Would you describe your operations as a Tier I or Tier II?
In Mexicali, Baja California we are a Tier I OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). Our major customers are Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer and Mitsubishi. We deal with virtually all commercial platforms and have some military customers as well.
We also have OEM operations in Guaymas, Sonora where we manufacture moving parts of the engine: The blades, vanes and other components. It is a machining facility only for special processes requirement covering different kind of engine platforms from Pratt & Whitney, Snecma and CFM International. It has been in operation since 2000. They are the oldest aerospace operation for us, for UTC, in Mexico.
We manufacture and also provide aftermarket service to our original equipment. Our aftermarket, which includes spares and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) business, is laid out throughout the world.
Tell us more about Mexicali.
In Mexicali we started in 2008 with a 350,000 square foot facility. The manufacturing began in 2008 and we are now expanding in 2015 with another extension of a facility right next door of 160,000 square feet to manufacture composite acoustic bond components for the thrust reverser component.
Those mainstays of aerospace discussion -- fuel efficiency, lighter weight, aerodynamics -- what challenges do they pose to you in the Mexican operations as you put all this together or do this fabrication?
The challenge is engineering design process. We own the design and engineering of the components on the nacelle. That means we have to design it to be more fuel efficient, lighter and it has to operate for the life of the airplane with the best quality at 100 percent of the time. Over the years, we have migrated from sheet metal manufacturing of many of our components into composites, which are a lighter material, a stronger material versus sheet metal.
Composites versus sheet metal; do composites stack up when it comes to the strength of materials?
Absolutely! That is the way of the future. If you look at the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB aircraft, they are mainly made out of composite material in the fuselage of the aircraft. That was one of the major design changes that happened with those two platforms.
Because of weight for efficiency may support the increasing prominence of composites. What about harsh conditions?
Harsh condition consideration is based on fusing several things: The right special processes, stress analyses, design for the correct angles and weights throughout the whole components. It is critical for us that we are integrating the manufacturing and design center in Mexicali in Mexico to provide the requirement in the manufacturing process from the design all the way to finished product.
You said you have your own proprietary engineering. Let’s get down to the shop floor, what type of demand does that put on a skill level? Can they rise to the occasion?
You bring up a very good point with the labor base. It is all about training, all about hiring qualified people. The people in Mexico that we hire are very motivated. They are very highly educated and the most important part is they train and learn and sustain their capabilities. That has a success story for our facilities in Mexico -- the labor base.
To be able to bring it from a design all the way to the floor manufacturing operation, you have to have the proper training program and sustain and provide the environment for those workers to stay in order that you are not having a big turnover. Our Operating Principles known as the Four Gears include Integrity, Ideas, Performance and People. We devote a lot of effort to the People gear to ensure that all our employees feel engaged and valued and are given opportunities to continually learn,
How capable is Mexico of meeting either the raw materials or partially finished components you need for your supply chain?
We are working with FEMIA (Mexico Aerospace Industry Federation), the state governments and the federal government for developing the supply chain for aerospace. What we need around us for our facilities are suppliers providing components and raw material just in time to our facilities. This is a very critical part of the operation. The target for Mexico is to develop and bring the supply chain to a standard of aerospace that is available in other cost-competitive countries.
When you say just in time, “the right amount” enters the thinking. In other words, just in time to produce is one thing but inventory sitting out in the back lot is another matter.
That is exactly what the just in time concept covers. We do not want to take on the inventory. We want it delivered just in time for what we need for the day that we pull for the manufacturing requirements.
UTC Aerospace Systems was recently recognized as gold tier supplier for the defense logistics agency. It is part of the Defense Department’s Superior Supplier program. To what extent did Mexico contribute to this recognition in the U.S.?
In Mexico we want to stay competitive. Staying competitive requires more than just an inward focus; we also have to have the right supply chain companies that support our operations. The government needs to support the incentives for the aerospace industry in order to bring it up to standard with other countries. We are working very closely in that angle with all the agencies involved.
I want to bring up the concept of aerospace training center sponsored by the state government and federal government in northern Mexico. We have that in Queretaro; that needs to be set up for the Northern Mexico area. In order to do that you have to have a plan put together by the government agencies to develop that training center for aerospace and for certification process.
Aerospace requires a certification process with ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and Nadcap, a global cooperative accreditation program for the aerospace and defense industry that is not currently available in the Mexican supply base.
What has to happen from the UTC Mexico perspective with the country’s supply chain in order to assure success in the long term?
We like to have 80 percent of our suppliers around us. We are growing in Mexico. We are expanding and we want to do the same thing with our suppliers. For the next five to 10 years, our vision is to have at least 80 percent of our suppliers around us. What we call for is the logistics and supply base providing what we need just in time. That is the target.