Lisi Aerospace – Working Smarter, Not Harder
We learn how a fastener factory for the aerospace industry is transforming modern manufacturing.
When Ondrej Polak went to school in the Czech Republic he was an academically gifted child, but not one interested in engineering. His math teacher used to jokingly threaten pupils in his class that if they didn’t work hard, they would end up working in a bolt factory.
“Later I met that teacher on holiday he said ‘You were the smart one in the class. What are you doing now?’” Polak recalls. “And I said, ‘I work in a bolt factory!’”
It is true. Today Ondrej Polak is the Process Development Manager of Lisi Aerospace, part of the Lisi Group, which manufactures fasteners and structural components for most, if not all, of the big aircraft manufacturers and distributors around the world. Lisi has been involved in the sector since 1977, and Lisi Aerospace’s facility in Rugby, England employs 240 people, while Lisi Aerospace as a whole employs over 5,000 employees globally and is currently in the top three aerospace suppliers in the world. Possibly a bit more than just “a bolt factory then.
“It’s a great place to work, a great team with a tight-knit, supportive management team, and that culture spreads across the shop floor,” says Mark Capell, General Manager of Lisi Aerospace Rugby. “That’s why I love working here, because of the teamwork and the shared vision and shared achievement. Our core values are innovation, teamwork, integrity and customer focus. Everyone has to have good customer focus and integrity. We prioritise communication and the involvement of the workforce. We really believe it, we live it.”
Integrity and honesty are not just buzzwords for Capell. As General Manager he is very open with his team, ensuring constant two-way communication. But as well as an open and communicative company culture, Lisi Aerospace is also a powerhouse of innovation.
Putting the “Smart” in “Smart Factory”
“Innovation is essential,” Capell tells us. “A lot of companies talk about being innovative, namedropping Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things and Smart Factories, but we’re actually doing it. And that sets us apart.”
This was not always the case, however.
“We were historically set up as a standard manufacturing and engineering business,” Polak says. “Engineers used to mainly work on day-to-day activities and with this organisational structure it was difficult to take a step back and think about innovation and what would set us apart.”
A decision was made in 2017 to change that, starting with appointing Polak as manager of the engineering department.
“We restructured the whole team and turned it into process development,” Polak says. “We asked ourselves what will set us apart in five years’ time? We don’t just do presentations but develop the production line of the future, applying I4.0 technologies to our existing production line. This gives us credibility and it shows employees within our organisation the link between technology and business value. We can use ideas on a proof-of-concept basis while developing our future programme, using funding from Innovate UK. Our future machines will be able to make basic decisions thanks to machine learning.”
While Polak was making these changes to Lisi Aerospace’s engineering department in 2018, the markets were changing rapidly, putting enormous pressure on prices.
“Most of our products are made to specification, so we knew we had to innovate the process to remain competitive,” Polak recalls. “We looked at how this could be done. It was only me and a digitalisation engineer, Krzysztof Dec, at the time. There were lots of technologies out there, even in 2018. There were loads of white papers and demonstrations but nothing really relevant to us. So, we took a step back and asked what the real technical problems are affecting our productivity and how can we use I4.0 technology to solve them?”
From here Lisi Aerospace began developing its smart factory approach, working with Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Together, they put together a vision to establish what a smart factory would look like for Lisi Aerospace.
“AMRC realised our vision was innovative enough to apply for funding from Innovate UK, and we worked with them for 12 months on a bidding process,” Polak tells us. “In 2020 we were successful, receiving £1 million to develop the factory.”
The project was delayed, like so many big projects, by the Covid-19 pandemic, but within six months it was up and running again.
“We partnered with the best equipment manufacturers around the world. You can’t do machine learning on machines that aren’t designed for the purpose,” Polak insists. “Now it’s paying dividends because there’s a big focus on cost & innovation within our industry, and by taking this decision in 2018 we’re much further ahead than we would have been.”
In carrying on this process, Lisi Aerospace had the support of the Lisi Group as a whole, although as Capell points out, not all Groups are as supportive.
“In a lot of organisations if you’re part of a group you’re quite restricted, but we have a lot of systems in place to ensure the day-to-day running of the business is at a very high standard with continuous improvement, purchasing, health and safety,” Capell tells us. “That means when it comes to the innovation side of the business, we are encouraged to be innovators, encouraged to be entrepreneurial, that’s part of our role.”
From there, Polak completely built a department from scratch in two years, creating a long-term vision and strategy for the company. That strategy nurtures innovation but ensures that it is always directed towards the future of the business.
“We need results, so we have robust processes in place to justify each of our projects. That’s a good example of where we’ve worked with other organisations, such as the University of Cambridge, on a justification process,” Capell tells us. “Every idea goes through a filtering process and is justified to ensure we’re working on the right things. It stops little passion projects that might be great ideas but not good business decisions.”
The Human Element
While the technological innovations behind Lisi Aerospace’s new developments are key, Capell is careful not to underplay the importance of people in aiding the company’s transformation.
“The two things that go hand in hand here are innovation and the focus on people,” he says. “We’re already working on the next generation of Ondrej’s team with organisations like De Montfort University and the MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre).”
But while people remain at the core of Lisi Aerospace’s strategy, their role will continue to evolve.
“The traditional engineer’s job is dead,” Polak says simply. “Future jobs in manufacturing will be gradually getting closer to IT and technology-related jobs. The apprentices we bring in are data analysts and software engineers because these are the skills needed for factories of the future.”
“We’re making a big investment in developing the training plan for line technicians, line leaders and Maintenance Engineers of our smart factory,” Capell adds. “We are shifting expectations of the different roles within the factory. A line technician needs to know how to run the machine, but in the future, they will need to know how to understand data. We’re sending people on data literacy courses, going up to six sigma greenbelt level, and we’ll expect them to use those skills to fine-tune and improve our future processes.”
But for Polak, it all comes back to that story about his old maths teacher. It is not enough for him to recruit people into the industry and equip them with the skills they need.
“How can we bring a new generation in if we stick with doing what we did for the last 20 or 30 years?” Polak asks. “We want to make manufacturing people’s career of choice.”
“It’s easy for us to get quite evangelical about this because we really believe it,” Capell adds. “We’ve got this opportunity to make science fiction a reality, and that’s something a lot of us are getting excited about. The sort of stuff that’s been in the movies for the last ten years we’re using in the factory right now.”
Ondrej Polak, Process Development Manager &
Mark Capell, General Manager, Lisi Aerospace Rugby (left to right)