With so many styles of working, it can be difficult for organizations, big or small, to arrive at the most effective methodology for their product development. In the aircraft interiors industry alone, there are several manufacturers who all adopt different practices to provide airlines with a finalized product.
For Unum Aircraft Seating, who launched its business class seat manufacturing business earlier this year, the company has chosen to implement Renaissance Engineering, a traditionally untapped manufacturing strategy.
In this article, Mark Hacker, chief technology officer at Unum, discusses an engineering development style inspired by the Renaissance and how that technique has evolved the company’s manufacturing process. Alongside this, Mark will explore upcoming innovations in the industry and what can be expected in the years ahead.
The seat manufacturing process and Renaissance Engineering
Engineering styles are closely interlinked to the organizational culture. Larger organizations tend to have very hierarchical structures with clearly defined silos throughout departments.
For these larger manufacturers, there is often a greater number of engineers employed by the company who work in a conveyor belt system through the design and manufacturing process. Engineers will be clearly segmented into different areas of specialization, varying from concept creation, to design testing, to manufacturing engineering. Within this system, each engineer will work on their assigned part before passing it on to the next engineer to continue the next stage. This process is continued until the product is finished and shipped to its customer. This approach can be effective however, it is also associated with a lack of agility, mis-communication between the silos, and resultant long lead times.
For smaller manufacturers, a different approach may prove more agile and efficient. Renaissance Engineering is a concept that is inspired by the creative and technical minds of the Renaissance, where individuals were supremely innovative by being part artist, part scientist, part philosopher and part mathematician, adapting their skills in a variety of fields to grow their technical abilities. For seat engineering, this technique is implemented by allocating engineers with responsibility across the entire lifecycle of a particular module of the product, overseeing the entire process rather than a narrow-specialized area. This allows engineers to have total oversight from start to finish and have complete knowledge of the project, should they need to make any amendments to the component to create a successful design.
At Unum, this methodology has been interlaced throughout every aspect of the design and manufacturing process. This is beneficial for both product consistency and developing the skillsets of engineers who have recently entered the industry.
The positive implications of Renaissance Engineering
Renaissance engineering is a unique outlook which has not been previously explored, so the question lies as to what the outcomes are when implementing this technique into design and manufacturing strategy.
Overall, this technique is beneficial to both the product development aspect of the business and on a more personal level for the engineers involved in the process. By allocating a higher degree of responsibility to one person, it is their role to ensure that any technical defects are resolved, rather than passing the component (and associated problems) onto the next person to complete. This mentality reinforces a level of consistency across the product, with no gaps in communication that would otherwise be present between each employee. External communication is also more focused with suppliers, ensuring greater alignment across all stages of manufacture from design to on-time delivery.
It is no secret that the aviation industry has an ongoing shortage of engineers. It is therefore important that engineers feel valued within the company and that they are reaching their full potential. By increasing their level of product responsibility, engineers will find an added sense of passion and enthusiasm for the product they are creating. In turn, this means more time will be dedicated to perfecting the seat and will deliver a better, more consistent final design. By showing engineers that their work is valued and is achieving positive results, their interest will be retained and they will be more likely to stay at the business for an extended period of time.
Potential drawbacks of Renaissance Engineering
Like every technique, Renaissance Engineering also has its downsides. As engineers are given a higher level of product responsibility there is also an expectation for them to have a broader range of technical skills and knowledge of the seat they are designing and manufacturing.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that no engineer can become a master of all trades no matter their seniority in the field. To manage the expectation of this increased accountability, manufacturers must consider implementing a mentoring system which supports individuals to work across a variety of disciplines and projects. Some engineers may also find Renaissance Engineering a daunting prospect, especially if they are new to the role. Through the correct support system, these individuals can be eased into the process, whilst also quickly developing their abilities on the job.
Debatably, Renaissance Engineering can prove problematic in the scenario where an engineer is out of the business for a prolonged period. In this case, it may be difficult for alterative engineers to step in with limited knowledge of the design module the original engineer was working on. Therefore, for organizations who adopt this technique it is crucial that they have the correct internal infrastructure in place, for example a senior project leader who has the ability to continue the manufacturing process when certain engineers are unavailable.
At Unum, Renaissance Engineering has received incredibly positive feedback, particularly from graduates who have rapidly progressed their abilities and have seen the results of their project firsthand.
The future of aircraft seat engineering
As with the rest of the aviation industry, the development of digitalization will become a prominent element of the product creation, manufacturing and delivery process. Product customization is becoming increasingly important to airlines to suit a variety of aircraft models and passengers’ onboard requirements and manufacturers should utilize technology to cater to this demand. Particularly during the design process, technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality (VR) can allow designers to virtually create and test their visions before taking the design to build. These systems are also useful for communicating exact desires with stakeholders by being able to showcase prototypes through VR headsets. Technological developments are indicative of an exciting time for the industry, evolving the opportunities to explore human creativity and potential.
The end goal of future innovations should be to produce a product that meets the needs of both customers and users. In the aircraft seating sector, the final design should be comfortable, robust and have a maintainable foundation for longevity.
Through the combination of technology and Renaissance Engineering, Unum has created a system which satisfies all persons involved throughout the manufacturing procedure, from customers to users to our engineers, whilst ensuring that our products are comfortable, consistent and delivered on-time.