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BAE Systems is enjoying outstanding availability rates with its Starrag machines at Salmesbury

Optimised Starrag machine utilisation keeps BAE Systems on its high-flying course

The Starrag Group currently has 43 machine installations on the BAE Systems site in Salmesbury – and all are achieving outstanding availability rates of better than 95 per cent as a result of an ongoing 'continual progress' partnership with the Swiss machine tool builder based around a detailed programme of strategic planned maintenance.

Included in the impressive portfolio of Starrag machines at the Lancashire site are twin, eight-machine FMS systems installed four and two years ago in 610, the machine shop dedicated to titanium production. The 9,000 ft2 high-technology facility is responsible for producing 75 different components for the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter jet, part of the biggest recorded weapons programme in history with each plane reported to cost some $100 million.

Separate facilities house, for example, nine multi-million pound and highly specialised Starrag Group Droop + Rein machines. These are installed in air- and humidity-controlled booths and are producing profiles and drilling holes in hybrid titanium/composite 3-D panels ready for assembly. This new method of 'direct-to-line' assembly eliminates any normal time consuming 'fitting' operations as part of the aft and vertical tails for both the BAE Systems Typhoon and F-35 fighter jets.

Even with such a number of Starrag machines, BAE's heavy commitment to investment is not abating: further equipment from the Swiss builder, including an extension to the existing FMS set-ups and an additional, duplicate four-machine installation, are on the company's order schedule to meet strengthening F-35 volumes and the upward forecast of some 3,000 total flying units to be built in the UK.

As a result, maintaining return on investment targets and ensuring annual cost-down ratios are met through productivity gains means machine availability is a primary concern. And by working jointly with Lockheed - the Pentagon's biggest defence contractor - and with the Starrag Group, the 43 machines are on record for maintaining better than a 95 per cent availability that ensures the target utilisation of 85 per cent for the planned load time is achieved.

How has such a high utilisation figure been achieved and maintained? As part of the on-going F-35 contract, now in its second year, forward planning and the 'engineering out' of possible flaws in the production system became a prime focus of attention. As part of the strategy, Starrag has engaged its own onsite manager at Salmesbury with the support of six technical engineers who are also permanently onsite.

This engineering team carries out strategically planned maintenance and in conjunction with using condition monitoring tools as the watchdog to not only optimise and fine tune performance, but also to oversee and forecast what could lead to unscheduled interruptions to production.

Using non-cutting cycles, condition monitoring regimes capture and establish a master signature of automated sequences taking in, for instance, data from each machine tool axis and its lubrication system which is continually monitored and the results compared against the master. From this continuous data capture the engineers are automatically notified of any variation and, in particular, any drift in performance. Regular checks are also made on machine integrity covering alignment using ball bars for spindle, X, Y and Z axes geometry.

BAE's Jon Warburton, whose role as Head of Maintenance Strategy & Transformation & Infrastructure Services incorporates investment projects, plant and equipment, comments: “Our working relationship with Starrag has certainly created unprecedented levels of return in enabling us to meet our strategic targets and most importantly, also given us, Lockheed and Starrag the confidence to extend production contracts.” This is vitally important as the F-35 programme will span some 30 years when spares are included. “So, getting the groundwork in place has provided an important foundation well into the future,” he added.

He also points out the importance of selecting the right partner and establishing the optimal manufacturing solution. “We started the project in 2006 and the initial work was dedicated to in-depth planning. We were acutely aware that if we pruned resources and bought cheap then we would end up attempting to forever justify having to buy twice. In fact, we knew we would never really move forward and would be continuously trying to engineer our way out of self-imposed constraints. This compares to what we have achieved: optimised results that we can continue to enhance with progressive and continual improvement.”

Indeed, as a result of establishing the project from such intense background work, the initial support contract with Starrag was immediately expanded as the first year of production came to a close. An integrated product team was set up within BAE incorporating an applications team from Starrag complemented by a BAE machine control programming team responsible for operational cycles and tooling.

“The Starrag engineers have far greater detailed expertise on the capability and technical advantages of their machines than we could ever hope to achieve,” explains Mr Warburton. “However, our engineers understand our components and the demands of function, the material and in particular, the performance criteria of the airframe. BAE engineers can draw on factors that radiate from design and development that must be acknowledged in production.

“By fusing these two considerable knowledge banks we have created a powerful team dedicated to optimised production techniques.”

He adds: “More important in our view is the feedback for future equipment installations, so we can gain advantage by absorbing recent introductions or developing specific technical advances relative to our needs in machine construction and build. However, it goes much further than that by also influencing controls and software, fixture and workholding, as well as tool design and development. These elements are critical to our quest to establish year-on-year savings.”

Mr Warburton maintains that the benefits from the engineered project have played a critical role in what is being achieved overall. “This also covers the design and layout of the 610 building and extends to system engineering and into 'future proofing' for continual development.”

The two high productivity FMS systems in 610 are based on eight Starrag STC 1250 five-axis machining centres fed by robotic-loaded carts from a fully integrated Fastems 100 pallet (two x 50 units) storage. Two Fanuc six-axis robots supply the machines from a 1,000-capacity tool storage area.

As part of the extended 'minimal manned' automation of the project, overhead coolant supply and swarf extraction - believed to be a world-first for titanium manufacture - enables the spent highly abrasive titanium chips to be extracted from the machine through an auger before being vacuumed and contained within enclosed piping into a centrifuge. Here, any carried-over coolant is extracted then clean dry swarf is made ready for despatch outside of the building, keeping the whole facility low maintenance, clean and odour-free.

The FMS is engaged in machining of 60 different Beta Annealed Ti-6Al-4V forgings that are supplied in a pre-machined state by sub-contractors. The machining cycles can take up to 16 hours and can require up to 150 tools.

Also laid down in 610 is a bespoke twin-spindle horizontal machining centre (soon to be complemented by a second machine in 2015) developed jointly by BAE and Starrag, and installed as an exclusive design to BAE. The Starrag BTP 5000 five-axis travelling column twin-spindle machines have 1,000 Nm torque spindle drives mounted one above the other to simultaneously machine pairs of spar components each up to three metres long.

To facilitate final boring operations within the titanium machining complex there's a Heckert HEC 1000 Athletic horizontal boring machine having 50 kW, 1,200 Nm torque spindle drive and a 60-tool magazine. It is at the heart of a Fastems 16-pallet storage system that utilises 1,000 by 800 mm pallets.

The success of the 610 project has led BAE to establish its own industrial park and Enterprise Zone, which is scheduled for opening in 2016. The facility will be open as a 'base camp' to key suppliers such as Starrag, enabling even closer support and further extending the partnership's working practices. The project's forward planning includes BAE's own training academy to enable the company satisfy its growing need for future engineers.

Press release issued by Starrag Group Holding AG on February 10, 2015


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