Embraer’s New Executive Jet Assembly Facility

Often our own work experience shapes our perspective of the industry, creating a myopic view of our huge, diverse industry. Mine was developed early on while working in the airline industry where work places were often huge old military or manufacturing spaces that were noisy, dusty, hot, or cold depending on the day or season, and staffed by multitudes of seemingly frenetic employees.

This version was soon to be upgraded when Embraer’s media relations manager for North America Elisa Donel, invited AMT magazine to attend the news media open house on Sept. 6 at Embraer’s Executive Jets Campus in Melbourne, FL. Also attended by journalists, magazine editors, cameramen, and the local press, we got a briefing from the executive staff and a guided tour of the campus. We were treated like customers and all questions were answered.

Our briefing began with a presentation about the “Space Coast of Florida,” the Economic Development Commission (EDC) and Embraer’s collaborative efforts and negotiations necessary for Embraer to locate the Phenom 100 and 300 final assembly and paint facility and global customer center at Melbourne International Airport.

Embraer S.A.

Embraer is a multinational corporation headquartered in So José dos Campos, Brazil, that designs, develops, manufactures, and sells aircraft and systems for the commercial aviation, executive aviation, and defense and security segments. It is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial jets up to 120 seats, with offices and operations in six countries including the United States for 33 years.

Founded in 1969, Embraer has a workforce of about 18,000 employees and its firm order backlog is around $16 billion (US). In 2004-2005, a 10-year market assessment showed a potential for 8,500 business jets worth $138 billion (US), so in 2005, Embraer formed Embraer Executive Jets to compete in the entry-level and light jet segments with the Phenom 100 and Phenon 300. Its assessment appears to be on track. In a recent web cast, Embraer discussed its 2012 second quarter performance numbers: 20 jets were delivered to the executive aviation market, 17 of those were light jets (seven Phenom 100s delivered from Melbourne, 10 Phenom 300s).

In today’s economics those are great numbers but could be better, according to Ernie Edwards, head of Embraer’s Executive Jets business. Edwards told Reuters in an interview at the August Latin American Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition (LABACE) in So Paulo, Brazil, that, “Embraer wants 30 percent of the business jet market” and it appears that the Phenom series is the airplane that will help get that 30 percent and maybe more.

The Phenom 100 and the 300 are entry-level jets and were designed specifically to compete in the single-pilot executive and business market. The 100 has a capacity for four passengers, the 300 holds six. About 240 Phenom 100s have been sold and there is a nice back order.

This aircraft is what the Embraer staff call a “clean-sheet” design and represents true innovations in business jets. It is not a scaled down version of other company aircraft.

Melbourne Executive Jet Campus and staff

Embraer’s Executive Jet Campus houses the Phenom assembly facilities, global customer center, and the future engineering and technology center to be completed in 2014. The tour of the Melbourne Campus was a high-voltage jolt to my mental model of our aviation industry. The Embraer campus was a “green-field project” and all the new buildings and their interior could be featured on the pages of Architectural Digest. The assembly facility was like no other that I have ever worked in, visited, or read about.

Working from a “clean sheet” is how Phil Krull, managing director, Melbourne Operation, describes the campus design philosophy. The final assembly facility in particular is bright, air-conditioned, impossibly clean, and quiet. It is a very high-tech facility using the latest computer systems, manufacturing tools, jigs, fixtures, and processes. In a prior phone interview Krull states, “We are justly proud of this facility in which we combined highly educated, high-tech people with advanced production techniques that are on the leading edge of modern aircraft production.”

Total staffing as of July 2012 was 208 employees: 164 in the assembly facility and 44 in the customer service center. According to Krull, “We have a very diverse and talented workforce here at our Melbourne facility. Our technicians average about 17 years of experience. We have 160 production employees and 40 of these are former NASA contractors. Some were recruited from competitors, local companies, and different branches of the military.

“Each new hire had four weeks of training that included lean manufacturing processes, continuous improvement concepts, safety, and other technical courses provided in-house and through Brevard Community College. Technicians that operate special tools, fixtures, and machines had an additional six weeks of intense hands-on training at the Embraer Aircraft Manufacturing facility in Gaviao Peixoto, Brazil.”

All executives and staff state that “their success at the Melbourne assembly facility was due to the ease of acculturation with their Brazilian counter parts and the exceptional level of teamwork between the two work groups.”

Final assembly line

This modern facility can produce both the Phenom 100 and 300 in single-line configuration. Currently 160 technicians working two shifts are producing two Phenom 100s a month and, depending on economics and customer demand, could increase that rate to eight per month.

Production of the Phenom 100 began in June of 2011 and to date, 14 Phenom 100s have been produced and eight delivered. In the afternoon of our tour the executives announced that two more Phenom 100s had been sold that day. This September, the Phenom 300 assembly started in Melbourne, with its first delivery expected in first quarter 2013.

The fuselage, empennage, and wing assemblies for the 100 and 300s are built in Brazil and shipped in very large boxes via sea and land freight to the Melbourne assembly facility. There, assemblers install windows, landing gears, all systems, flight deck equipment, instrument panels, engines, and the customer’s choice of interiors and paint scheme. The aircraft components, piece parts, hardware, and support equipment are clearly marked and strategically placed at each of the five assembly stations. The aircraft in work moves one station every seven days.

On tour, I did not see or hear hand drills, impact wrenches, rivet guns, or service units; no aircraft engines running up or planes taxiing by and most notably, no technicians shouting to be heard over the din of it all. The facility appeared to be staffed by a small number of young, diverse assemblers and support specialists who were friendly and usually presented big smiles as we walked by their workstations.

Paperless assembly

The Melbourne facility is conducting the beta test for Embraer’s first “paperless” production line and one that “uses leaner, cleaner, and faster assembly processes.” I found this “paperless” line concept intriguing. Granted it was a few years back, but my experience in heavy jet overhaul and light manufacturing was that before the aircraft or part could be released for service, the associated paperwork had to equal the weight of the aircraft or part.

When asked for more details, Krull gave us an ample description of Embraer’s Manufacturing Execution System (MES). “It is a computer-controlled, browser-based data collection and reporting system that supports RF handheld intelligent devices and barcode scanners. Embraer staff use a tablet and pen stylus for entering and retrieving information when at workstations, in and around the Phenom production line.”

Some examples of information contained in the MES system are work instructions, specifications, or data from a component being installed. When the technicians are working away from plane side, they use kiosks with large screens and keyboards. The MES system collects data about process, quality, downtimes, and maintenance.

Krull says that one of the “challenges” was translating all the technical documentation from Portuguese to English. As we toured the assembly area, we saw many assemblers using the MES. In addition to having this technology available, the engineers and production control support staff are located a short distance from the production line.

Mark Miller, production operations manager, was one of our tour guides and when asked how well the assembly process worked said, “There had been a few challenges early on but they had quickly worked through those and now operations were very smooth. Current production was just a bit ahead of schedule.”

He also casually mentions that in December 2011 when operations and flight tests were completed on the first Melbourne-made Phenom 100 pushed out the door, all operating requirements were met and there were zero discrepancies, no squawks. He says that the Phenom had met their expectations and set the bar for quality.

We also had an opportunity to look at the paint hangar and other employee spaces and common areas. The huge negative-pressure paint hangar was exceedingly clean. The employee café and restrooms were just as bright, colorful, and clean and organized as the production floor.

I mentioned my observations of the café and restrooms to Krull and he says that represents Embraer’s commitment to a culture of respect for its employees and to ensure that Embraer is a great place to work. As we toured the Embraer campus, Krull pointed out the common areas including ball courts, walking paths, and covered sitting and eating areas.

To paraphrase several of the Embraer Executive Jet executives: “We are American first and foremost but aviation is a global business. We work for a global company that is very successful, has a culture of inclusion and cooperation, builds beautiful products, has competitive compensation rates, and creates great places for us to work.”

Maggie Laureano, vice president of human resources, states that one of the corporate goals was to create a happy workplace at the Embraer campus in Melbourne.

After touring Embraer’s Executive Jet Campus and visiting with the employees, my mental model of our industry changed considerably. My hope is that the Embraer culture and the facility in Melbourne become the model for future aviation workplaces. I saw quite a few assemblers that looked quite happy working in a quiet, clean, air-conditioned building on small, beautiful jets. AMT

Charles Chandler has a Master’s of Science Degree in Adult and Occupational Education with a major in Human Resources Development.