Wichita’s Manufacturing Transformation

Textron Aviation
Credit: Textron Aviation

WICHITA—In the past two decades, Wichita’s aviation industry has undergone a dramatic manufacturing transformation. 

More change is on the way, in a move some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

While Wichita is not alone, the industry’s transformation has been most pronounced here because of the city’s concentration of aviation employers and workers, experts say. 

The transition is evident in the data. Since 2000, Wichita-area aviation employment has dropped by nearly half. Despite a smaller workforce, manufacturing output has risen over the same period, says Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR). 

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred and slowed overall production, the rise in output would have been even more pronounced, Hill says.  

The only way to achieve increased production with a smaller workforce is by improving productivity, Hill says. “The short story is that the aerospace industry has completely transformed by adding technology and equipment over the last decade,” he says. It also has provided some relief to an industry struggling with a skilled labor shortage.

Employment Versus Output 

Wichita area employment in transportation equipment manufacturing—comprised primarily of aviation manufacturing in the area—totaled 44,721 people in 2000, according to the CEDBR and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the end of 2021, that figure had declined to 22,820 employees.

In 2001, manufacturing output for the Wichita area totaled $8.21 billion in constant, 2012 inflation adjusted dollars. In 2020, the latest figures available, manufacturing output had risen to $8.52 billion. Output is up, despite other changes in the city’s industry. In 2013, Beechcraft Corp. emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization but had halted business jet production. It sold the next year to then Cessna Aircraft Co., now Textron Aviation. In 2022, Bombardier ceased production of its iconic Learjet, although the impact is not yet reflected in the data. 

Over the past two decades, the number of Wichita-area manufacturing suppliers that support the business aviation, commercial, defense and space industries has remained stable. In 2021, the number of suppliers totaled 132, compared to 135 in 2000. Annual average wages in Wichita’s industry, meanwhile, have increased, rising from $50,578 in 2000 to $82,697 today. 

Over time, companies tended to hold onto their workforces as much as possible during periods of decreased demand because labor was critical, while manufacturers put off massive changes in technology, Hill says. As a result, there had been a slow decline in the workforce.

That changed during the recession that began in late 2008. With so much disruption in the market, manufacturers laid off thousands of employees in the Wichita area. As they began to hire back, they also were studying how to use labor differently and the technology required to become more productive and remain competitive in the market, Hill says.

“As an industry, they were forced to do it,” he says. 

The transformation continues. In June, Deloitte Consulting launched a Wichita-based “Smart Factory,” calling it the “art of the possible.” Its goal is to help manufacturers digitally transform their shop floors using a combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, cloud and edge applications, robotics, vision solutions and other technologies. 

Industry 4.0 

The Smart Factory @ Wichita, as it is called, includes a fully functioning production line with robots to deliver supplies and take part in the production process, working next to employees on the line. The facility is a way for organizations to make Industry 4.0 a reality, officials say.

“Manufacturers must evolve in response to unprecedented levels of supply chain and workforce disruption by reassessing the capacity and agility of their manufacturing operations,” Dan Helfrich, Deloitte Consulting chair and CEO, said during its grand opening in June. 

Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita’s largest employer, has been working with Deloitte and other partners to make the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution a reality, Scott Bishop, Spirit AeroSystems director of next-gen aircraft programs and advanced manufacturing strategy, said during its opening. The company’s challenge was to develop an interconnected production system linking engineering, resource planning, manufacturing execution, equipment and quality to “make it all work.”

Now, “we have real-time visibility on the status of every major piece of equipment in the production system,” Bishop says. Spirit can track parts and any constraints through the entire process. It’s a big job and a long way from the plant’s roots as a former Boeing World War II factory. Each 737 fuselage today contains more than 145,000 individual pieces.

The impact from COVID-19 and Boeing’s 737 MAX issues, which slowed production, gave Spirit additional time to further concentrate on improvements, which included reworking production flow on the factory floor and investing in additional automation and improved technologies. It has digitized the entire factory floor. 

“It really gave us time to really think through what does Spirit’s model look like in the future,” Samantha Marnick, Spirit AeroSystems executive vice president and chief operating officer and president of its commercial aviation division, said during a May panel discussion at Wichita State University. “We learned a lot about the state of our factory, the gaps in our factory and what would it take to get to high rates.”

As part of the change, Spirit relocated production of the Boeing 737 forward section, or Section 41, to another part of the factory, added automation and created a Center of Excellence. 

Fewer moves on the production line and increased automation mean less work in progress, reduced labor hours, lower risk of rework and improved quality, Marnick says. 

By partnering with automation equipment manufacturers, Spirit now installs nearly half of the thousands of fasteners found on the Boeing 737 fuselage by using flexible automation equipment, Bishop says. Production of aircraft floor beams utilizes five fully automated and five semi-automated stations, according to Marnick.

In 2021, Spirit opened a Global Digital Logistics Center that consolidates thousands of parts from across the campus into one location to streamline their delivery to the workers who need them. The center includes a 40-ft.-tall automated high-bay shuttle system, nine acres of automated rack shelving and robotic cranes. It has the capacity to handle more than 120,000 parts per day and drives a 99.7% part-kit delivery accuracy, the company says. 

Tasks for the mechanics now come with written and visual work instructions.

“There was an opportunity to improve the instructions,” Marnick told analysts during an Investor Day in the Spring. In addition, “as we think about this next generation of workers that we’re trying to attract into aerospace, they’re not thinking blueprints; they’re not thinking about walking 300 yards to a computer to go into a database .... They’re looking for this kind of technology where it’s visually very easy to see and you can pull it up straight away and it looks like what I’m looking at. So, visual work instructions [are] a big deal on the factory floor.

For quality control, employees can scan for any issues or defects using digital pixel differentiation. They use a topology map with instant real-time feedback to check an aircraft’s exterior for any dents or skin scratches. If there are any areas of concern, the equipment can measure and provide data for a fix. 

Going forward, the company plans to transition other elements of the production system, Bishop says.

Cycle Time Reductions

Across town at Textron Aviation, which employs 9,500 here, incorporation of new technology has reduced cycle time by as much as 50% in some cases, says Brad White, Textron Aviation senior vice president of operations, noting that improvements vary according to the part of the aircraft. While specific figures are proprietary, “we certainly have come a long way with overall productivity.” 

The transformation begins with new technology available in the market and is incorporated starting at the design level. 

“You can make a design that just makes the manufacturing process more productive, more efficient,” White says. “We started a journey 15 years ago where our engineering team is sitting next to our manufacturing engineers. Every drawing that they release, they have a joint review with our operations team for a dual signoff on ... the design. How would you manufacture it and then what do I need to do to incorporate my design to make it more manufacturable. I think that strategy has paid huge dividends for us.”

In addition, improvements can be found in its production tooling, including the design and addition of vertical tooling for assembly of its latest business jet models. 

“We went in and said, ‘All right, how are we going to tool for the operator so that the working conditions are more ergonomically friendly,’” White says. Now, “we have better access to what we’re working on. It’s holding the part in the orientation that’s necessary and controlling manufacturing tolerances on the key features of the part. So there’s been a lot of advancement in the actual tooling itself.”

Today’s computer numerical control machines, or CNC machines, cut metal at speeds nearly twice that of 20 years ago. Higher RPM machines coming onto the market today also optimize the cutting path for a part, which has allowed for some “serious productivity gains,” he said. 

The five-axis CNC machines of today reduce the operator’s machine set-up time and runtime, compared to the older three-axis machines, White says. To save time and improve quality, parts are now trimmed by the machine with the press of a button, eliminating hand trimming by an operator with a hand router. 

Textron Aviation also has moved to monolithic machining to cut time and weight and improve quality. Building one aircraft bulkhead, for example, once took the fabrication and assembly of nearly 100 individual sheet metal parts.

Now, “we can take it out of a single piece of aluminum and hog it out in a matter of hours—we’re talking less than one day’s shift—to make that entire assembly,” White says. “So it’s fewer part numbers [and] it’s actually better quality as well because you’re controlling every single surface of that structure.”

At the same time, sensors locate key points on an aircraft structure to ensure operators have the correct reference points before they drill. The sensors interface with the air supply needed for the operators’ power tools. If a part is not oriented correctly, the air supply is cut automatically so an operator cannot make a costly mistake, White says. 

Textron has added robotic cells for the company’s KUKA robots used to drill holes automatically. It’s a process used in production of the wings of its Cessna Citation Longitude business jet, for example. 

“It’s automation that really augments and enhances the employees’ experience, meaning they’re still doing things, working their job, building the wing in this example,” White says. “But they’re using the robot to supplement what they’re doing to make it faster, better quality and with better ergonomics.”

Editor's Note: The story has been updated to note that employment has dropped by nearly half since the year 2000. 

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.