Counter-intuitively, Cessna meets downturn with product expansion
With six products to certify and enter into service this year and two mid-sized executive jets to bring to fruition in the next two, has set an ambitious agenda at a time when markets remain tepid, at best.
“This is the most new models we've ever done,” says Senior Vice President for Engineering Michael D. Thacker. Cessna's market is far from recovered from the 2008-09 recession, which hit the company, asubsidiary, hard enough that it closed one factory in Bend, Ore., and three in Columbus, Ga. Its employee count dropped by 8,000. Textron CEO Scott Donnelly says Cessna has reduced its 2013 business jet outlook and is adjusting production rates. Some executives and machinists are opting for early retirement.
Despite all that, Thacker says, Cessna's strategy is to leverage its product commonality to broaden its lineup while emphasizing design-for-manufacturing techniques to position itself for an upturn. “We think new products do drive customer response,” he says. “As we come out of this downturn, we need to be prepared with fresh, new products. The reality is that a downturn is exactly when you need to be investing.”
As one of the country's oldest aircraft makers, Cessna has built tremendous customer loyalty—Thacker cites a 70-80% repeat order rate—and will count on that as the company extends the Citation 10 family's base range and seating capacity. Six products are coming to market this year—a small Citation called the M2, a new Citation X and a new Citation Sovereign, plus three general aviation aircraft updates: the Grand Caravan EX, the composite TTx and JT-A.
The second big endeavor begins next year with the Citation Latitude, which uses the Sovereign wing, cockpit and many of its systems in a new 7-9-passenger jet with a 2,500-nm range. Meanwhile, initial set-up begins on the 4,000-nm Citation Longitude, which moves into full production in late 2014 or early 2015.
Despite all this activity, Thacker says, Cessna is accustomed to developing new products, “so the pace is a normal flow.” Certainly from a facilities standpoint the company will not be strained. It expects to build fewer than 200 jets this year, far off the pace of years when it has produced more than 400. Still, its previous high-water mark for new product introductions was four aircraft in a single year. To gear up, operations teams became involved early in the development process of each of the new models to assure that tooling, fixture modifications and production layouts will be in place to support the new cycle.
Cessna produces the majority of its airframes and components, including its own landing gear, in-house. Very little is outsourced, with the main exception of empennages from Fokker Aerospace for the Citation Sovereigns. The majority of fabrication and assembly is done at its two headquarters factories here. Its Independence, Kan., factory produces general aviation models along with the smaller Citation Mustang and M2 business jets. Components are trucked in from a facility in Chihuahua, Mexico.
While the company's production capacity is more than sufficient, it has been expanding beyond its service center in Paris with facilities in Doncaster (near London); Dusseldorf, Germany; and Zurich, plus a small facility in Prague.
Aside from the composites in the TTx and some fairings and secondary structures, Cessna relies on traditional aluminum alloy materials. While the dimensions of its fuselages and wings, and the considerable customization that executive jets undergo for individual customers, has limited its application of automated riveting processes, the company has shifted to metal bonding for ribs and stringers. The transition has required a big commitment of capital and infrastructure but those costs are outweighed by improved efficiency, Thacker says.
One survival strategy was the emphasis on design-for-manufacturing processes. The shift includes co-locating engineers within the factory to support individual production models. Production improvement teams offer “rapid reaction” support on development programs.
Preproduction planning includes some traditional verification methods, such as building full-scale plywood mockups to verifySystemes' Catia software designs in terms of ergonomics and maintenance procedures.
These combinations of planning and new production methods have paid off over the past two years, Thacker says. “We've really hit our stride.”