Woodward Inc.’s new production center is just part of this aerospace supplier’s effort to transform our region. See how innovative thinking has led to investments in education, workforce development and culture change.
New-age manufacturing is far from the dark and dirty factories of yesteryear, and that’s readily apparent inside Rockford’s newest manufacturing jewel. At Woodward Inc.’s new Rock Cut Campus in Loves Park, Ill., innovation and engineering prowess unite to create the factory of the future.
Named for the state park located across the street, this building represents a radical diversion from the traditional manufacturing approach. It’s a place where innovation is baked into the product, workflow, office habits and company culture.
As a manufacturer of energy control devices for aerospace and energy industry manufacturers, Woodward remains a powerful part of Rockford’s economy. In particular, its aircraft turbine systems group, with two locations in Loves Park, makes Woodward one of the city’s largest players in Rockford’s aerospace cluster, which encompasses about 250 regional suppliers.
Woodward’s nearly 450,000 square-foot Rock Cut building is an impressive commitment to the region, but surprisingly, it may not be the company’s most significant contribution. As a leader in the Transform Rockford movement and local education initiatives, Woodward is leading a charge in restoring the region. The new Rock Cut campus is simply its most visible mark in remaking Rockford’s identity.
“We’re just doing our job and playing our part – and we’re happy to do so,” says Sagar Patel, president of Woodward’s aircraft turbine systems division. “I’m glad others are joining in. That’s how great communities thrive, when we’re joining in and working together.”
The Rock Cut Campus feels as though it’s just waking up. Many desks are unfilled; cubicles have yet to be installed in some areas. The production center has new equipment arriving weekly – but it’s just a fraction of what will be here once the plant is fully functional in 2017.
In recent years, Woodward has doubled the number of engines on which its products appear, says Patel. This spring, Woodward established a joint venture with GE to make fuel system controls on several commercial aircraft engines. Production volume in Rockford is expected to double over the next decade.
“In the past, we used to have one or two components on each of those older airplanes,” says Patel. “We have gone up to 10 to 15 components on the newer engines.”
In aerospace, product development moves glacially. The first five years are spent almost entirely on research and development, says Patel. After Woodward wins a contract with the likes of GE, Pratt & Whitney, or other engine-makers, five more years are spent designing, making, certifying and fully launching the manufacture of those devices.
“Where are we on the time frame? We’re on about year eight of that cycle,” says Patel. “So, we’ve already finished up a ton of work on certifying our products and they’re successfully being tested on airplanes. Now, we’re preparing to ramp up our volume.”
At full capacity, Patel expects to have about 400 people working on the manufacturing floor, with another 300 or 400 in the adjacent office. Though some of these jobs will move from Woodward’s facility on North Second Street, many of the Rock Cut jobs are new positions. By 2021, the company expects to employ nearly 2,100 people between both locations.
“Most of our engineering jobs we actually filled about three or four years ago, because we had to develop all of the product before we could begin production,” says June Hazzard, vice president of human resources for the aircraft turbine systems division. Now, Woodward is aggressively filling its production floor.
New hires need a variety of advanced manufacturing knowledge, from computer-controlled machining and tooling to assembly, print reading and equipment troubleshooting.
“Once we make a decision to bring someone in, that’s just the beginning of training, because we believe in a culture of lifelong learning,” says Hazzard. “They come in the door and they spend the next three to eight weeks completing additional training. We have one of our training coordinators available all the time to help them through.”
A team of 12 instructors, all longtime Woodward members, are bringing new hires up to speed. “It’s a lot of investment we’re making, but it’s just brand-new technology and a brand-new way of doing things,” says Patel. “We pride ourselves on having a flawless product go out to our customers.”
Thinking Out of the ‘Box’
The Rock Cut Campus breaks many conventions, starting with its building. Bucking traditional approaches, the project team made a building that fit the production process – not vice versa.
“We had to think about designing all of the product lines, planning out all of the machines, right down to how many, why they’re needed and how they should be situated,” says facilities director Mike Nevicosi. “If this building is all about manufacturing these products, why not design for that right upfront?”
For nearly four months, Woodward’s project team members evaluated workflow, machine footprints and process improvements. They benchmarked more than 70 factories around the world and took radical new approaches to manufacturing. Their goal: build a product in-house, “from billet to box.”
The result is an L-shaped production floor. On one side, raw materials and supplies come in and are sent to one of five lines: shortest line on top, longest line at the bottom. Each line curves around as it heads toward assembly and shipping. About 70 percent of each product is purchased from suppliers.
“One advantage of the L shape is that the smaller product lines that require less equipment stay inside the L,” says Patel, an engineer who spent nearly 20 years with GE’s locomotive and jet engines divisions. “The product lines that require much more complexity, larger machines, or more machines stay on the outside. If you simply arranged everything in a straight line, it wouldn’t work.”
The project team was guided by a series of “run rules” – principles for accomplishing an efficient production cycle. Their rules included:
- Parts never stop
- Perfect quality
- Facility fits expected 2021 capacity
- Maximum flexibility and mobility
- Collaboration and innovation
- No “monuments,” or permanent fixtures.
Evidence of these rules is everywhere, from the open and collaborative office spaces to the wider-than-usual column spacing.
“Rehearsal Teams” at Woodward’s facility on North Second Street are refining the production cycle before it’s launched at the Rock Cut Campus. These rehearsals provide critical insights.
“Pretty soon, we’ll pick this up and move it to Rock Cut,” says John Heilman, continuous improvement manager. “They’ve already wrung out a lot of the processes.”
Thanks to these rehearsal lines, Heilman has seen big improvements in the production of servo valve spools, which once took an hour to make.
“We’ve got that down now to 6 minutes, and we’re just getting started,” says Heilman. He expects a new servo will come off the line every 4.5 minutes, when Rock Cut hits full capacity in 2021. By then, the servo line will produce 10 times today’s volume.
Improvements and refinements within the manufacturing process have also reduced production times. Whereas older processes required parts to be sent off-site for value-added manufacturing, new machines can handle these operations right on the line.
Where volume is high, automation will help to make up the difference. Heilman says a robot-controlled production line will be installed later this year.
“If we did this process how we do it today, we would only exacerbate our inefficiencies, which we obviously don’t want to do,” says Heilman. “We have to do things differently. We’re still going to need people to oversee the process, and our technicians will need to learn how to program and troubleshoot robots. That’s a skillset that we’re going to need for today and into the future.”
Innovation is even happening in the assembly process, where a new approach integrates high-volume technology from other industries.
“We’re implementing stationized build sequences for the assembly processes and are integrating standard instructions at each station that someone can learn quickly,” says Heilman. “The way we used to do it, we had a lot of tribal knowledge. For example, if a member was the only one who knew how to build a particular unit, and that person was on vacation, that unit would sit and wait until the person returned. But at Rock Cut Campus, this cannot happen because the orders never stop.”
A Culture of Improvement
Innovation and collaboration are baked into Woodward’s culture, from the office to the production floor. It starts with the company’s constitution, a document first established in 1971. The Woodward constitution emphasizes ethics and integrity, personal ownership of company priorities and collaboration across diverse groups.
“I would say we have a very unique incentive model, where everyone shares in Woodward’s success, through year-end bonuses and Woodward stocks,” says Patel. “That has created a phenomenal culture, and with this new team coming in, June Hazzard and the HR team are working hard to train them and assimilate them to our culture.”
Teamwork is evident in the modern, collaborative office space at Rock Cut Campus. Unlike offices of the past, where six-foot-high cubicle walls were the norm, this office has low dividers in an office filled with glass, enabling views outside the building, views of the production floor, views across the office.
Patel’s desk is located at the heart of the main office, his room walled off with glass and a sliding door. Upstairs, the corner office has been transformed into a collaborative space.
“We gave it to training,” explains Nevicosi. “We felt it was a very good investment to show the importance of training to our company.”
Collaboration spaces are scattered throughout, with small coffee bars located in key areas and collaboration spaces for team meetings or private conversations. A long row of desks, with power cords and USB ports built in, offers a place for visiting customers or Woodward members to set up temporarily.
A “Main Street” that flows between the production line and offices enables impromptu meetings.
“Tom Gendron, our CEO, really wanted our office areas to maximize innovation and collaboration,” says Nevicosi. “We believe that innovation comes together with a collaborative thought process to solve our customers’ problems – and that often leads to new business.”
Offices are located in several zones, with primary support and engineering in the front part of the building, some sales support located near shipping, engineers and tech support located upstairs, and support resources located on the factory floor.
The “Spine” upstairs connects everything. About 50 feet wide, The Spine is walled off with glass and filled with workstations, where Woodward’s Integrated Product Teams can stay close to the manufacturing process and quickly troubleshoot problems.
“Let’s say, for example, that Mike is running a machine in the FMU product line, and I’m an engineer who supports FMU,” says Heilman. “If Mike has an issue, he turns on his andon light and gives me a call. I can see him from the second-level spine and quickly respond. That connection happens in seconds. In our previous environment, Mike may have a hard time connecting with a support resource, and as a result, the order would have to wait.”
From the time it was founded in 1870, Woodward has maintained a close connection to its Rockford area. Though the company has grown and expanded to a dozen countries and five states, it hasn’t forgotten about home.
Woodward committed more than $100 million to construction and helped to support nearly 850 construction-related jobs. Furthering the company’s long-term commitment, Woodward’s leaders also play a significant role in transforming our region.
“Our company culture is rooted in our values and principles as documented in the Woodward Constitution,” says CEO Tom Gendron. “We manage the company for the long term and we believe in the value and contributions of each and every member in the company. We strive to have our members understand the strategies of the company, what it takes to compete and win in our markets, and to align all of our activities around our goals and priorities.”
Gendron is a founder of Transform Rockford, a nonprofit group whose mission is to generate a strategic plan for improving the region’s social and economic well-being.
The group is dedicated to making Rockford a top community by 2025. Through community input and group planning, Transform Rockford seeks to improve the region’s safety, education, economic outlook, infrastructure and culture.
“Tom is deeply committed to the region, and he sees its potential, along with the rest of us,” says Patel, who’s been at Woodward for four years. “I think what this region needs is not only a vision of what can take us to a Top 25 status, but what we need to nurture is collaboration with everyone.”
Woodward, for its part, is living up to its ideals. Over the past few years, the company has teamed up with many groups to grow a pipeline of talented workers and provide the incentive to keep them local.
When you look at the demographic data, we have an aging workforce,” says Hazzard, head of human resources for Woodward’s aircraft turbine systems group. “If 40 percent of our engineering population is nearing retirement in the next 10 years, we need to create a pipeline right now. We can’t wait 10 years to fill that. We need to do it today.”
Woodward’s efforts start with its investment in Alignment Rockford and the Rockford Public Schools, where company leaders advise on manufacturing curriculum. Woodward has partnered with Rock Valley College (RVC) on several initiatives, including a crash course for teens.
“We support the Launch program at Rock Valley, which allows students to come out of high school, gain work experience and go to school at the same time, and possibly go on to earn a four-year degree,” says Hazzard. “We’re also involved with JiET-A, which is a program to try to keep students in the community after they get their educations.”
This summer, Patel enthusiastically supported a deal between RVC and Northern Illinois University that enables community college students to earn an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in engineering, all while studying at RVC’s campus. Woodward, UTC Aerospace Systems and other local manufacturers have agreed to take on interns from the RVC/NIU program.
“I feel this is one of the transformational things this region needed,” says Patel. “How can you be an advanced manufacturing region and not have your own four-year engineering degree pipeline?”
Patel believes that, down the road, these investments will have a significant impact on the region, between the high-paid engineers who live here and the steadily employed manufacturing workforce.
“We need to be smart; we need to create a place where people want to stay,” says Patel. “Not all of them will stay here, but that’s not our objective. Our objective is to retain a large share of our brightest individuals. If you look at the flip side, where people leave because we can’t provide them with an opportunity to work here, that would be a deficit and a headwind on this region’s GDP.”
Never Looking Back
It may be a manufacturing center first, but the Rock Cut Campus is closely interwoven with nature. Located on 70 acres just west of Rock Cut State Park, the new Woodward property has a recreation path, an outdoor patio and fountain, and sweeping views of the landscape. This is not the factory of yesteryear.
With production just beginning, there’s a sense of optimism about what’s happening at this revolutionary plant – and the potential it has to reshape this region.
“We have a world-class workforce that helped us to create this unique and innovative product – and they’re all right here,” says Patel. “Secondly, Woodward was founded in Rockford and the community has a lot of pull for us. Our members have a lot of pull for us, and we can’t find that culture anywhere else. We are committed to helping the community get up and be noticed on the world stage.”
Even in its first few months, this new-age manufacturing setting is drawing renewed attention for Rockford.
“The facility and our workforce will demonstrate that Woodward and the Rockford community can produce world-class aerospace systems that are competitive with any company, region or country in the world,” says Gendron. “Our activities have already drawn customers and suppliers from around the world to see our test facilities and new campus. It is truly putting Rockford on the global aerospace supply chain map.