In the old days, when a turbine blade for a jet engine came off the assembly line, a grizzled old-timer might have to take a file to it to smooth a rough edge to make sure it met specifications, Danny Di Perna (pictured above) recalls. Some parts might have had to be scrapped. As senior vice president for engineering and operations at Pratt & Whitney, Di Perna has been in the engine business for a long time. With 5,000 parts and burning fuel at temperatures of thousands of degrees, they are machines of stunning complexity.
But today, as Di Perna and his team gear up Pratt & Whitney to cope with a huge increase in the number of engines it makes for Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and for single-aisle commercial airlines like the Airbus A320, employees at the end of the line rarely have to fix a single part. Robots using special lights pick up the blades as they are being manufactured, and inspect them to see whether they match the specifications in a central computer system. If they don’t, they are altered or fixed on the spot.
“We collect the data in real time,” Di Perna explains. “Every dimension is captured. Instead of waiting until afterward, we’re getting an in-process inspection.” Thus, when parts reach the end of the process of being produced, they are perfect, Di Perna says.
Pratt, a unit of United Technologies located in East Hartford, Conn., is launching into a new era of manufacturing with gusto. Workers are organized in cells, not in traditional assembly lines. They look more like scientists than old-fashioned, blue-collar workers because much of their work consists of looking at computer screens to make sure that parts are being honed, shaped and coated within a narrow band of tolerances. In addition to its embrace of real-time data collection, software and advanced robotics, Pratt’s suppliers make 80 percent of its parts, but it has vertically integrated production of the remaining 20 percent. This is where it defines its competitive advantage against General Electric and other rivals.