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  • Shelly Elliott

A Day in the Life at Davenport


For the past 20 weeks, I have been working on my first project with Arconic at our Davenport Works (DPW) facility in Davenport, Iowa. The plant is massive, with a footprint of over 6.5 million square feet, and produces a variety of plate and sheet products for the aerospace and automotive markets. For example, in aerospace, DPW supplies aluminum products that are used for the fuselage and wings in multiple Boeing and Airbus aircraft models, and DPW even supplied aluminum used on AirForce One!

Our team is part of Arconic’s internal consulting group, which means we follow a typical consulting travel schedule flying out from our home location to the project Monday morning and returning Thursday night. We fly out at around 6 AM on Monday mornings to arrive in the Quad Cities airport around 11 AM central time. (Thank goodness we get another hour of sleep that night!) Mondays are incredibly busy, getting caught up on what happened at the plant over the weekend and working to get things accomplished in a short day. During the week, we typically arrive at the plant by 8 AM and leave the plant somewhere between 5-7 PM during the week before grabbing dinner. Then, we head back to the hotel to relax or do more works, depending on the week. It’s a hectic, grueling schedule, and I had to find what worked for me. The eating out can be fun and an opportunity to try different cuisines, but after a while, I was craving a home cooked meal that I made myself, and I hate to cook! My solace is working out in the mornings. I love starting my day with exercise, and I communicated that it was a priority for me to have an opportunity to work out every day. I have the Beachbody on Demand service, and I stream workouts in my room while watching Squawk Box, Morning Joe, or SportsCenter, depending on my mood.

Ok- back to the project details. Our goal is to identify ways we can improve the recovery of one of our aerospace products. Recovery is percentage of good metal we ship out the door compared to the total metal we put into the production process. All of our products start as an ingot, a rectangular metal block weighing about 20,000 pounds. During the production process, we roll, heat treat, anneal, shear, and perform other operations to the metal to make it into our final products. During the production process, some of the metal is scrapped. We want to minimize scrap because it is waste that takes up capacity in the production equipment and leads to increasing costs.

There are two types of scrap: planned and unplanned. The planned scrap is what we intend to take to ensure that the metal is homogenous (the same throughout), square, and cut to the size that the customer wants. Think of planned scrap as a necessary evil; there are limitations that exist that require us to take planned scrap. Unplanned scrap, however, is the true evil. This is metal that we were planning on selling, but something happened that has caused the metal to be scrapped, such as a dent, gouge, scratch, abrasion (bruise on the metal), pit, or wrong-sizing. As a result, the metal must be pulled from our work in process (the metal that we have in inventory that is in the process of being converted from a raw material to a finished product) and re-melted for use in another ingot.

Unplanned scrap can come from three root causes. First, the handling between each piece of equipment can induce damage. Second, the equipment itself can create scrap if the equipment doesn’t have the capability or precision to perform. Finally, the manual operation or imperfect automation of the equipment can create scrap. Our team was looking at the root causes of planned and unplanned scrap and generating solutions that would address these root causes and ultimately boost our recovery. We worked with a diverse team of metallurgists, engineers, operators, and area managers to identify recurring issues and areas of concern before brainstorming ways we can address the problem. Our team conducted multiple observations, running experiments and collecting data, to understand how often these problems are occurring and help us build a business case for the solution.

In industry, the terms business case or benefit to cost ratio (shortened B:C) are used almost daily. It’s a way to compare different projects on an apples to apples basis to make decisions about how to invest company money. By considering the positives (benefits) to the negatives (costs), it generates a ratio that can be quantitatively compared among a variety of projects. For example, let’s say Project A requires an investment of $5M and has an expected benefit of $15M; it’s B:C is 3:1. Project B, on the other hand, requires an investment of $2M and has an expected benefit of $8M; It has a B:C of 4:1. So, even though the overall benefit of $8M is less than $15M, the company is able to make its investment go farther with Project B because each $1M in investment is generating $4M benefit.

The example above is incredibly simple. In the real world, gathering the data to justify the benefit can take months or even years to obtain at the level of detail necessary for company executives to sign off on millions of dollars of investment. In a business environment that is constantly changing, decision makers want to have the best data possible to ensure that the investment is robust and will generate a positive impact for the company, regardless of market upswings or downturns. Our team poured over prior plant data (literally, an Excel spreadsheet with close to 40,000 rows and over 100 columns) to get a solid baseline understanding of what we were dealing with. We collaborated with our teams to dig into the production processes and create hypothesis for why certain scrap conditions occurred. We conducted observations in the field and designed experiments to test these hypothesis. Sometimes our hypothesis were right, and we could start developing ideas for solutions and associated costs. Sometimes our hypothesis were wrong, at which case, we learned something and went down our hypothesis tree to the next one. Determining a root cause can be an iterative process, especially because the overwhelming majority of the time, there isn’t just one root cause that leads to an issue; it’s a combination of different causes. Our job was to pinpoint these causes, identify a corrective action, and create a business case for implementing the action.

A secondary objective of this project was to benchmark our plant against other facilities, both inside and outside of Arconic. I can’t go into the details on this one, but I can share a few of the places we visited and general experiences. Our team traveled to Hutchinson, Kansas, to see Arconic’s aerospace warehouse. It was the second Arconic plant I had been in, and it was incredible to see just how small the plant was compared to the giant DPW. This plant only had a couple of machines, so their operation was much simpler than what we were used to seeing. We also go to travel to Cessna in Wichita, Kansas, and saw how they take Arconic’s metal and shape, cut, grind, and machine it into the parts that create the pilot’s cabin, passenger cabin, tail, wing ribs, and wings. It was like a huge 3-D puzzle. One incredibly awesome thing I got to see, and truly an engineering feat, was the real Apollo 13 spacecraft that is housed in the Cosmosphere air and space museum in Hutchinson. I’m not an aerospace engineer, but I certainly have an appreciation for the rocket scientists in our industry!

We also traveled to Alcoa, Tennesse, located outside of Knoxville. Yes, the town is actually named after our sister company Alcoa. They make can sheet and automotive pieces at this facility. Check out this cool video to see how the aluminum cans are recycled and produced, and enjoy the awesome way the English narrator says, “aluminum.” Note that this is not a video showing an Arconic plant, but was a video produced by the Discovery channel.

This project opened my eyes to the world of aerospace. It was the first time I have worked on anything in the industry, and I got a better understanding of how our company competes in this market. From a technical perspective, I gained a solid understanding of rolling fundamentals and some basic metallurgy. Additionally, I was re-introduced to B:C analysis and also learned some other consultant tools like a risk matrix (stay tuned for a future post on this). I got to work with a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, strengths, and levels of experience, and I gained valuable insight about how to manage a project, establish a project timeline, communicate findings, and influence other people. I’m looking forward to seeing how our work will generate positive returns for DPW!

#dayinthelife #aerospace #BC #engineer

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© 2020 by Shelly Elliott.

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