Innovation by no means is limited to next-generation technologies that emerge from corporate product-development centers. Process innovation by small suppliers can be just as effective in helping original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) achieve significant cost and weight reductions of whatever they are producing.
TECT Aerospace, a seven-year-old Wichita-based aerostructures manufacturer with revenues of more than $150 million, is a case in point. The fastest-growing business of this TECT Corp. unit is an innovative process it developed for identifying complex assemblies whose parts count can be dramatically consolidated.
For example, it is not uncommon for the company to reconfigure a part containing 300 components—counting brackets, bolts, rivets and the like—and reduce it to fewer than 10 pieces. The end result is an aircraft structure that is simpler and lighter, and therefore easier and less expensive to produce. Even bigger savings come from the reduced time it takes to integrate the higher-precision part into the larger aircraft or engine assembly, according to Stephen G. Wurst, vice president for integrated engineering.
TECT's primary target market includes engine OEMs and business jet manufacturers. It also works directly with Tier 1 manufacturers. Large systems integrators have been outsourcing the production of many aerostructures, with suppliers expected to look for ways to eliminate cost and weight.
That is where TECT's proprietary process comes in. The company identifies families of complex, multi-component structures that lend themselves to significant parts consolidation. The automated process involves studying groups of parts, how they are assembled and the market price for OEMs to produce them versus what the part would cost after TECT finishes with it.
Once TECT has identified such an opportunity, it shares its analysis with the prospective customer. When it receives the go-ahead, TECT custom-orders equipment capable of very precise multi-axis machining that allows the manufacture, mostly robotically, of complex three-dimensional monolithic structures to replace multiple components. All of this is done in collaboration with customers, who do the actual design engineering and certification.
End products are typically 5-20% lighter, contain 60-99% fewer parts, require 40-67% less integration time with higher-level assembly, and cost 15-30% less. “If innovation has no demand, then you are wasting time,” Wurst says.
The key to TECT's process is envisioning how the company can improve the whole aircraft, with reduced weight and easier, faster integration, he says. “That is how innovation works, and that is what sustains our efforts to be more innovative in response to what our customers need,” says Wurst.