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Cessna Independence plant strives for ‘continuous improvement’

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, at 10:39 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, at 10:10 p.m.

— More than 10,000 airplanes have rolled out the door of Cessna Aircraft’s assembly plant in Independence since it opened in July 1996.

Cessna set up the southeast Kansas facility as it restarted production of the 172, 182 and 206 single-engine piston-powered airplanes.

It’s proven to be a limber place.

In the past year alone, the facility has begun assembly of Cessna’s new Citation M2 business jet, restarted production of the Corvalis TTx and begun assembling a diesel-engine version of the turbocharged 182.

“It’s definitely a milestone,” said Lily English, who moved from Wichita to Independence four months ago to become general manager of the site. “Even when the Independence plant opened … the 172, 182 and 206 didn’t commence in the same year.”

The site also assembles the Citation Mustang, a light jet, and Cessna’s light sport aircraft, the 162 Skycatcher.

“We do have flexibility in the facility,” English said. “Our workforce here in Independence is excited to be working on some of the newest products in the Cessna family.”

She credits an engaged, adaptable workforce for the additional programs.

“They’re willing and ready to take on new challenges,” English said. “And the proof is having three new models at once.”

Employees realize the importance of additional programs and work at the site.

They survived the economic downturn that hit the aircraft industry beginning in 2008 and wiped out hundreds of jobs at the facility in its wake. Before the downturn, the site employed nearly 1,400, a record. It now employs about 475.

“They know what it means to lose volume,” English said. “What they’ve done is get more engaged. They understand the business and do their best to continue improving. Continuous improvement is a big part of Independence. That’s how they earn getting more work here.”

The facility will add employees this year, although the number has not been finalized.

The majority of workers come from Independence, with a population of 9,600, and from other towns in Montgomery County. The rest come from other areas in southeast Kansas and northern Oklahoma.

The company has not yet released final 2012 delivery numbers.

In the first nine months of the year, 179 planes from Independence were delivered, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

Co-locating various models in production in the plant has advantages, company officials say.

For one, it’s a marketing tool.

Cessna’s strategy has been to take current customers and move them up to the next airplane.

“We’ve had a lot of customers picking up a 182 and see a Corvalis, or a Corvalis customer … see a Mustang firsthand and say, ‘That’s what I want,’ ” said Dick Friesen, Valuestream manager for Cessna’s Mustang and M2 products in Independence.

The M2

To make room for the $4.4 million six-passenger Citation M2, employees rearranged part of the facility, “leaned out” the Mustang manufacturing process and reduced production times.

During the downturn, Mustang production also decreased.

“We’ve learned a lot on the Mustang,” Friesen said. Those lessons will translate to the M2, which fits between the Mustang and its C-Series jets built in Wichita.

The Independence facility has delivered more than 400 Mustangs to date.

With the M2, employees on the jet line will broaden their skill set.

The two jets will merge into one final assembly line.

“Our goal is to have a team that’s very flexible and can go between the two models,” Friesen said.

To help with efficiency, schedules posted on large charts on the shop floor break up operators’ duties on the Mustang into short time periods.

The schedules are dubbed “swim lanes.”

Each “lane” splits work to be done that day on the Mustang into small chunks.

“All through the day, they (employees) know where they need to be by break time, lunchtime, second break and at the end of the day,” Friesen said.

If they fall behind, they can ask for help.

The purpose isn’t to make them work harder, he said.

Instead, “we want to fix your pains and make your job easier,” Friesen said.

The first production M2 will roll off the line in April. It will be delivered in the third quarter and used by Cessna as a demonstration airplane.

Corvalis TTx

Cessna halted production of the carbon-fiber composite Corvalis, formerly called the Columbia, in late 2010 after problems were found at the company’s Chihuahua, Mexico, facility, which builds the fuselage components and wings.

The entire environmental system in Mexico, key to working with composite materials, had to be redone.

Now, the humidity, air pressure and temperature are controlled through use of a continuous monitoring system, Friesen said.

“We went through the process and looked at every step to make sure it’s all ready to go,” Friesen said. “They’ve responded very positively to the changes we’ve done down there.”

Assembly of an upgraded Corvalis – the $734,000 Corvalis TTx – restarted in October. Five are currently in production and three more have come off the production line.

The first one will be delivered soon.

“It’s been a journey,” Friesen said.

It’s an “exciting product,” said Brian Steele, Cessna’s business leader for the Corvalis TTx. “Customers can’t wait to get their hands on the airplane.”

With the Corvalis, which has a maximum cruise speed of 270 mph, the intent is to give a “jet-like experience in a propeller airplane,’ Steele said. “And they get it. It’s a Porsche-like experience flying that thing.”

What’s next?

English, the general manager, often gets asked what other work is coming to Independence.

She can’t answer that question. But Cessna is always analyzing new models to introduce, models that might be discontinued, and where new products will be built.

English’s philosophy is for the site to be engaged, continue to improve and be cost competitive and flexible.

“Then obviously we’re going to be considered,” English said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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