When Roger Parrish evaluates a potential machining supplier for Boeing, he may be interested in looking at a particular machine tool.
But he is much more interested in learning about the system within which that machine will be used.
● What QA procedures will allow the shop to consistently meet Boeing’s quality targets?
● What scheduling methodology will let the shop make on-time deliveries coordinated with Boeing’s manufacturing needs?
● And how will this shop manage both the quality and delivery of all of its critical sub-tier suppliers?
When asked specifically what machining capabilities are important for a Boeing supplier, Mr. Parrish does offer a couple of nuggets. High speed machining is one. And five-axis machining with a nutating head is becoming more critical, he says, because the steep angles on some of the newer monolithic components are too difficult to machine efficiently using a traditional A-over-B five-axis machine.
But he seems almost bored in giving these answers, and the reason for this is simple. “Machining capability can be bought,” he says. What cannot be bought is the organization, discipline, sophistication and culture necessary to make that machining capability work seamlessly in the service of the customer’s needs.
This mindset represents a considerable departure from the way machining suppliers were evaluated no more than 10 years ago. Back then, the kinds of machining that a shop could perform provided the most relevant and straightforward yardstick by which a supplier company could be evaluated. Today, those machining capabilities count for much less, because other factors have grown in significance.
Three employees with Boeing’s St. Louis, Missouri, military aircraft facility recently discussed their changing priorities when it comes to contract machining. Mr. Parrish is one of the supplier managers at the site responsible for complex parts. Two other managers there, Robert Goellner and David Raymo, are responsible for procurement of various commodities, machining included. While all of the information they provided for this article relates to Boeing St. Louis, there is a growing extent to which the needs of this one site reflect the needs of the company as a whole. (More on that below.) The information also has relevance to contract machining universally. Mr. Parrish no doubt summarizes the thinking of many major customers for machined parts when he stresses that while machining capabilities remain important, machining capabilities by themselves say less about you as a supplier than ever before.
Does your shop’s brochure primarily consist of a list of what equipment the shop owns? If so, then it may be time to question whether that list is really telling prospective customers what it is they want to know.
Performance From Place To Place
Boeing St. Louis has about 75 active suppliers for machined parts. These companies manage any number of sub-tier suppliers. All of the Boeing sites together, military and commercial, probably have about 550 active machining suppliers. And while it used to be that suppliers served individual sites specifically, Mr. Raymo says that “today we are looking for much more of a ‘Boeing focus.’” In other words, he does not want to see a superior level of performance given to one particular site in the company—not even his own. If a supplier receives 80 percent of its Boeing business from one site, it would be a cause for concern to see that the sites making up the remaining 20 percent receive a different level of quality or delivery performance. As Boeing works to become a more integrated company, any particular project today is likely to have personnel from multiple locations—engineers from St. Louis and Wichita, for example—working together. That means a supplier company should not have a production system that relies heavily on its connections to any one Boeing site. Instead, the supplier should be able to integrate readily with any Boeing location as needed.
That track record of service to other Boeing sites does indeed open doors. All Boeing facilities share a database of supplier information that records not only performance history, but also information related to more fundamental concerns such as the supplier’s financial stability. The existence of an entry in that database saves Mr. Parrish and the others considerable time when it comes to evaluating a new shop. Last year, about ten potential suppliers made it so far through the evaluation process that they were paid a visit and studied by Boeing St. Louis personnel, and in all but one of those cases, the supplier had done work for some other Boeing site in the past.
Discipline And Diversity
Is it possible for a company with no prior Boeing experience to receive serious consideration as a potential supplier? The answer is yes. No particular machine tool would cause a company to stand out, but certain other characteristics would capture the attention of Boeing personnel, both at St. Louis and elsewhere. Those characteristics include:
● Diversity of capabilities. Boeing generally does not want to receive just a machined part anymore. Increasingly, the company needs suppliers to deliver either completed assemblies or “kits” of related parts. A machining supplier able to demonstrate a special effectiveness at assembly or kitting has a leg up over other supplier prospects.
● Schedule management. Having a process that can hit narrow delivery targets is key. Often a supplier is assigned certain part numbers and told what range of demand to expect for those parts. The supplier then needs to be able to deliver the ordered pieces in time with the needs of Boeing’s system. Mr. Parrish says it is no exaggeration to say that when he is evaluating a potential supplier, he gives as much attention to the company’s MRP system as he gives to any particular machine.
● Sub-tier discipline. This point relates to both of the points above. A shop may achieve its range of capabilities through relationships with subcontractors. Even if it doesn’t, suppliers for commodity items such as raw stock or fasteners can’t be allowed to compromise delivery dates. That means the same schedule management that applies to the shop’s own resources has to extend to the sub-tier suppliers. When Mr. Parrish speaks of wanting to see a supplier’s system, part of what he wants to see is a carefully vetted network of sub-suppliers, along with a strategy for ensuring that the entire network conforms to a common timetable.
“In the past, both we and the suppliers used to focus exclusively on the manufacturing,” says Mr. Goellner. “Today we are looking at the supplier’s process, its information system and its overall business strategy.” The “manufacturing” remains vital, he says, and a shop that excels only at machining complex parts can still play a welcome role in the supply chain. However, such a shop probably would not supply Boeing directly. Instead, it would be more likely to find work as a sub-tier supplier serving one of the companies that is able to provide Boeing with assemblies or kits.
Boeing St. Louis is contacted by many more suppliers than it needs, and many more suppliers than it can even evaluate. Also, the number of machining suppliers available for military work has increased in recent years as the demand for work on the commercial aircraft side has dropped off. So is this location still looking for new suppliers?
It is, says Mr. Raymo. “The search for new suppliers is not an urgent priority for us, but it is more of a medium priority.” There is a need to maintain an industry awareness, he says. “At any given time, we have suppliers across the enterprise whose performance or ongoing viability is in question. Those suppliers often redeem themselves, but not always. We need to remain alert to the availability of other options.”
Mr. Parrish expands on this point by describing Boeing’s role in the supplier relationship. “We devote resources to developing all of our suppliers—not just money, but also time. Often there is extensive training on our approaches to assembly and our approaches to lean.” This attention is ongoing.
That means the worth of any supplier consists of more than just the ability to hit quality and delivery targets for the right price. For each supplier, Boeing also has to consider the return on its own investment.