January 21, 2013
Credit: Credit: MTU Maintenance Zhuhai
Bradley Perrett Zhuhai, China
Sometimes, when an airline calls, it wants an overhaul shop to receive its turbofan in three months. Getting that much notice is good, because anyone running an engine overhaul plant likes to know just what the technicians and equipment will be doing at least four weeks ahead. A long, dependable schedule is an efficient schedule.
But sometimes the customer wants its engine in the shop in two weeks. Or next week. Or even tomorrow. “And sometimes they want tomorrow but the engine turns up a week later,” says Frank Bodenhage, chief executive of MTU Maintenance Zhuhai. While commercial aviation does not always work the way engine overhaul managers would like, the challenge is particularly great in Asia, where many airlines seem to forget that pulling apart and reconditioning a commercial turbofan takes a bit more planning than, say, servicing the chairman's Mercedes-Benz.
MTU Maintenance Zhuhai, which overhauls CFM and IAE engines for narrowbody airliners, has accepted that it cannot change Asian airline habits. While expanding its plant by 50%, the company has also reorganized its work practices to increase flexibility.
Most of the work at the company, owned equally by MTU Maintenance and China Southern Airlines, is now performed by multi-skilled teams who can be quickly switched between disparate engines. So the people who disassemble newly arrived engines normally know how to pull apart two different types. Those who assemble the cores of one type can also work on the cores of another, and so on.
In each area of activity—say, assembly or turbine blade inspection—a single manager has the authority to switch teams from one job to another. Bodenhage says the company has eliminated a layer of supervisors that would have resulted in meetings being held to discuss which teams could be moved to where.
MTU Maintenance Zhuhai has targeted a particular market segment that is a boon to flexibility: CFM56-3s, the engines used by Boeing 737-300s and 737-400s. Since such engines are no longer very valuable, their owners are happy to accept longer turnaround times as part of a job that usually will not be very expensive. By having such non-urgent engines on the floor, the process managers at Zhuhai can switch teams to and from them according to the demands of engines under shorter contracts.
The work is organized mainly with simple paper and magnetic-whiteboard processes that the company has found to be robust and easy to use. Simplicity helps flexibility.