Volume 11 | Issue 3 | Year 2008

The cult-favorite television show Fantasy Island was famous for a character who would announce arriving guests with a phrase rendered in highly accented English as “De plane! De plane!” For private and business aircraft manufacturers who require finished cabin interiors and accessories, these days that expression is “DeCrane! DeCrane!” This cry has become much louder of late as the idea of a single-source provider of cabin componentry really takes off during times of strained capacity.
The company was founded in 1989 by Jack DeCrane to offer OEMs and completion centers a group of businesses that equip, refurbish and retrofit private, commercial and military aircraft.
“Jack’s business model was that of a holding company in which a portfolio of interior completion business units ran independently,” explains Heidi Pursley, vice president of sales and marketing. Last fall, Decrane Aerospace brought in a new senior management team headed by Roger Wolfe as CEO. Wolfe has 30 years of aviation experience with Honeywell Aerospace and most recently as CEO of Landmark Aviation, which underwent a highly successful restructuring under his leadership. The company name was changed from DeCrane Aircraft Holdings, Inc. to DeCrane Aerospace.

The name change wasn’t merely putting a new face on the same business. The rebranding reflects the company’s intention to integrate all the services it previously offered through separate business entities. It now provides a single point of contact for interior products and services to business jet owners, OEMs and commercial airlines, as well as government aircraft markets. “It’s more efficient and economical for a customer to work with one supplier who can provide a finished cabin than to hire 25 subcontractors,” Pursley points out. “Whether it’s a single component or an entire interior completion, we manage the design, engineering, manufacturing, installation and certification. It’s truly a single-source solution that results in faster turnaround time and maximum efficiencies.”

Under the new company structure, Columbus, Ohio-based DeCrane Aerospace is made up of five cabin divisions and one completions and engineering services group. Audio International, Carl F. Booth Veneers, Aircraft Seating, PCI Composites and Precision Pattern Interiors offer comprehensive aircraft interior products and services including cabinetry, veneer products, seating, inflight entertainment and cabin management systems. PATS Aircraft Completions and Engineering Services specializes in interior completions and auxiliary fuel systems and provides custom composite avionics racks and enclosures, fully wired installation kits, electrical interface solutions, and retrofit kits for inflight entertainment, communication and navigation systems.

Pursley notes that the restructuring has been going “500 miles an hour” since its inception in September 2007. “While we’re still in the early stages, we’ve already achieved some significant wins to provide integrated interiors.” This includes the complete cabin solution for the new Lineage 1000 private jet, manufactured by Embraer of Brazil and based on its commercial, 98-passenger, Embraer 190 airframe. Another example is the new Adam Aircraft A700 interior, the
largest cabin in its class. The interior features special seats developed by the aircraft seating division that fold completely back for easy loading and recline up to 20 percent for passenger comfort. Sister division Precision Pattern Interiors provides additional interior engineering and fabrication, while PCI Composites serves as the systems integrator to deliver the entire completed interior to Adam Aircraft in a single “ship set” for installation.

Pursley maintains that DeCrane Aerospace’s single-source strategy is unusual in a cabin interior components industry that today remains largely fragmented. “It’s the best way to respond to changes confronting aircraft manufacturing. Demand for private and business jet aircraft is at particularly high levels, and manufacturer capacities are strained,” explains Pursley. “Even some of the business aviation aircraft manufacturers who have historically done their own cabins are looking to outsource cabin completions to better focus on their core competencies.”

Of course, increased demand for new aircraft means greater demands on OEM suppliers. This situation is further exacerbated in aircraft interiors completions because, as Pursley explains, the cabin is the last thing to be finished before the aircraft is delivered to the customer. “At this point, the OEM is just waiting on the interior, so there’s a lot of pressure to get the cabin completion done as quickly as possible. Lead times in this business are long – it can be as much as five years from the time of the aircraft order to the time of delivery to the end customer. So there’s a lot of pentup demand, and anything we can do to speed up that process is a definite value add,” she says.

This can present a challenge to a company that has traditionally specialized in custom work. The solution is to provide a custom look using pre-built parts for faster assembly that are then “customized” according to specific customer selections.

There are basically two types of customers for private aircraft Pursley says. One is the business and corporate segment. According to Pursley, about 75 percent of these end-users are based in the United States. With globalization, however, the remaining percentage, primarily in Asia, is growing. The other major segment is what they call the “high-net-worth individual” whose aircraft is almost entirely for personal use. “The VVIP customer wants a truly customized interior outfitted with the best materials, unique furniture and high-end entertainment systems, so these are usually one-of-kind jobs,” says Pursley.

She adds, “We are going to continue to serve our VVIP segment. But, when the industry manufacturers are seeing hundreds of orders for an individual model of aircraft, they do not have the time to build everything custom to order. However, they still want a custom look and we can deliver that.”

The answer lies with standardized, pre-assembled parts that go unseen by the end-user, but are customized for a unique appearance. One example is in seating, cabinetry and other furniture, where certain base structures are personalized with select upholstery and veneers.

“Our veneer business is world-class, with a multi-million dollar inventory of logs, some of which are centuries old,” Pursley says. “More than 150 tree species and cuts are represented, gathered from every continent except Antarctica, offering the world’s finest, rarest, most prized veneers. So, while two airplanes may share the same cabinet design, they will have entirely different looks. And, for those VIP customers who want something no one else has, all they have to do is specify what they want, and we’ll get the specimen for them.”

DeCrane’s Carl F. Booth manufactures veneer plywood that’s as thin as 0.8 mm. Using a variety of substrates and consisting of multiple plys, it’s cut into precise shapes for custom cabinetry, furniture, doors and bulkheads, and often includes symmetrical grain patterns and intricate inlays. “This requires a workforce of highly skilled craftspeople, which is becoming something of a dying art in the United States,” says Pursley. “Fortunately, we’ve had very low turnover, and we’ve invested in training to cultivate the needed skill sets in veneers and cabinet making for new, incoming labor. But going forward, it will be a challenge to maintain this kind of highlevel, individual craftsmanship and meet aircraft completion volume needs.” Pursley says the answer in part will be to continue to develop more ‘snap-together’ furniture so DeCrane can focus its skilled labor primarily on finishing. “There’s always going to be a need for skilled labor, but we just have to redirect what may be a limited resource in the future to where it can be most valuable.”

Another capability DeCrane Aerospace is cultivating is “plug-and-play” interchangeability with other manufacturers’ components for inflight entertainment and cabin management systems. “That saves a lot of time and effort,” Pursley says. “For example, our Audio International division can supply a complete home entertainment system, which is increasingly a standard item on a private jet. But some owners, especially VIPs, may want a particular brand of speakers or a flat screen that we don’t offer. That’s no problem. We can provide our system and easily incorporate whatever the customer wants without delay and without hindering the effectiveness of the system.”

For the immediate future, however, DeCrane Aerospace is tasked with effectively integrating its various business units and some 2,000 employees to improve its own performance and productivity so it can then be passed on to customers. To that end, the company has established a corporate-wide Continuous Improvement Council (CIC) headed by Jeff Whitehead, general manager of the PCI Composites division, and staffed with representatives from each division.

“One of our strategies is to share best practices and trade resources,” Whitehead says. Every two weeks the council members have a teleconference meeting, and every quarter they meet face-to-face on a revolving basis at each member’s location. They’re in the early stages, having created the CIC concept in September 2007. It’s a unique concept since most of the DeCrane divisions have been accustomed to directing their own continuous improvement efforts, however, they’ve already achieved some significant progress. One example Whitehead provides involves 5S methodology to improve efficiency. “It’s a key building block in the foundation of a continuous improvement process, but we’ve found that frequently one division is implementing it differently from another,” he says. The CIC has adopted a corporate 5S Program and developed a common training process within each division to ensure that the approach to 5S is consistent across the corporation. “Creating consistency will help us integrate our processes and deliver a complete
cabin solution to our customers more efficiently,” he says.

Such initiatives sometimes encounter resistance when dealing with multiple company cultures, each of which may be accustomed to doing things their own way. “We’ve managed to get past that by directly involving the production supervisors and personnel from all the divisions. When you’re talking at the level of the people who actually implement, you find that there’s a lot of excitement generated in exchanging ideas about what works and what doesn’t, and what we can do together to make this a better situation for everyone involved,” says Whitehead. “Nobody wants to make their job harder. When you get everyone involved and everyone has a say, it tends to break down those cultural barriers,” he adds.

Equally important as communication across business functions is communication up and down the corporate hierarchy. DeCrane’s CEO issues a weekly letter to all employees to keep them current on what’s going on, what they’re doing right, where some corrections are needed, and how that’s going to be accomplished. In addition, the company has an intranet that allows any employee to look at a hot issue and make a suggestion, or even write directly to the CEO, Roger Wolfe.

Whitehead says, “Rather than creating resistance and resentment to change among the various divisions and employees, we’ve actually created an atmosphere of excitement. People here are
embracing change because they see the opportunities that it creates, for the company as a whole as well as for them as individual employees.”

One achievement has taken place in Whitehead’s own division. “Five years ago, PCI Components primarily produced unfinished, raw composite panels that someone else, either another company or the OEM, would then finish,” explains Whitehead. PCI recognized that their major O.E.M customers were becoming more capacity constrained and needed to off-load work that they had historically performed in-house. “So we developed assembly capabilities at PCI and started installing the hardware and coverings to the raw composite panels that we already produced,” he adds. This “value-added assembly” enabled PCI to provide the customer a complete ready-to-install sub-assembly as opposed to an unfinished part that the customer had to complete.

For 2008, the CIC has undertaken a training initiative to develop at least one lean manufacturing work cell in each division that is based on a pull manufacturing system. “Once we have the initial work cell up and running, we can utilize the work cell to train employees and empower them to develop additional lean manufacturing work cells throughout the facilities,” Whitehead says.

The CIC has also developed a consistent method for measuring progress that is based on four primary areas, Quality, Cost, Delivery and Safety. The QCDS Metrics Boards are utilized throughout each DeCrane division to measure and report performance.

In addition to ensuring consistent standards across divisions, the CIC has also created a “Lean Manufacturing Assessment Process.” An assessment team, comprised of members from the CIC, performs a Lean Manufacturing Assessment audit on each DeCrane division to determine the maturity and effectiveness of their continuous improvement effort. “The management teams of the individual divisions use the audit results to guide further development of their continuous improvement effort and better align it with corporate objectives,” explains Whitehead.

Whitehead notes that DeCrane Aerospace is focused on “what our customers are telling us they need. There is pressure to do things more efficiently and having a single source for their interiors
is very attractive to our customers.”

One example of DeCrane’s continuous improvement success is PCI Composites. Over the past five years PCI has significantly reduced labor costs. “We have accomplished this by improving productivity and using these efficiency improvements to create capacity and add more work, not by eliminating any jobs,” says Whitehead. “Given the capacity issues in our industry, that is going to be the continuing challenge, for our customers and us. The people here are our most important asset, and we need to retain them by implementing process improvements that make them more productive without creating more stress or impinging on their individual creativity.”

Pursley adds, “We know what we want to do and what we need to do as a corporation. We have processes in place and under development to make us more efficient and to provide value add to our customers. Now that we have a clear and consistent corporate strategy, we’re working on continuous improvement and taking it to the next level of excellence.”

That’s the flight plan DeCrane Aerospace has logged, and it already seems to be on the right trajectory.

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