When Gulfstream opened its two G500/600 production plants, the company unveiled its most advanced facilities yet. Built adjacent to Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, the facilities were part of an investment program that is now nearing $1 billion and has spanned more than a decade. This investment has transformed the Savannah site from one that executives once viewed as an airport with a factory on it into a factory with an accompanying airport.
The transformation has occurred as Gulfstream has grown from a one-aircraft company to what will become a lineup of as many as seven. Of those, five are being built at its headquarters in Savannah.
To accommodate this growth, the company has turned to new approaches, new technologies and new manufacturing techniques. “Gulfstream’s manufacturing processes and efficiencies…have resulted in a significant increase in aircraft deliveries,” said Greg Collett, Gulfstream vice president of production and completion operations. “In 2004 Gulfstream delivered 77 completed aircraft. By last year, that number had jumped to 150.”
The original 260,000-sq-ft manufacturing facility opened in 1967, initially to produce the GII. The GII production eventually transferred over to the GIII. By 1982 the GIV had supplanted its predecessors.
Except for a short time when GIIBs and GIIIs were produced simultaneously, the facility had been used primarily for production of one aircraft type and at much lower volumes. GIV deliveries were averaging only about two dozen a year when Gulfstream introduced the GV in 1995. While the space didn’t change, the facility went from producing only the GIV to a two-aircraft production plant with the addition of the GV. By the mid-2000s, deliveries of GIVs and GVs had nearly tripled.
The plant continues to produce the follow-on G450 and G550. With sales still solid, the facility uses all available space to keep both aircraft lines flowing. To do that, Collett said, “We have implemented lean processes and introduced new tools, including an auto riveter in 1999/2000, to increase efficiency and quality.”
He cites as an example the “kitting” and labeling of all the pieces and parts for a particular aircraft and use of a vending machine with high-use tools (such as drill bits) in a high-traffic area to cut down on the need for employees to walk through the factory to a tool crib for an item.
Gulfstream also established a continuous improvement program to encourage employee input on making the process more efficient. “For example, technicians realized if they had a pouch around their waist to hold insulation pins, they wouldn’t have to repeatedly bend down to pick up pins to insert on aircraft stringers, saving time as well as wear and tear on their bodies,” Collett said. “Year-round, employees are encouraged to create ways to improve how they work.”
The management team has also paid close attention to workflow. One Gulfstream executive recently shared an anecdote about Joe Lombardo, who led Gulfstream before being promoted to an executive v-p position at General Dynamics: after learning of a worker’s back pain, he personally designed a tool to ease the burden of lifting certain equipment in the completions process.
New Facility Designed with Future in Mind
Gulfstream opened its second major manufacturing facility when it announced the G650 in March 2008. This facility, part of a $400 million expansion announced in 2006, came with 316,650 sq ft (203,000 sq ft of it dedicated to manufacturing). Unlike the G450/550 facility that was adapted over time to accommodate new models, the G650 facility was designed specifically for the company’s largest aircraft to date.
It also was designed with volume in mind. Before deliveries began, the G650 had quickly racked up orders for more than 200 aircraft, an initial backlog that stretched into 2017. Production moved so swiftly in the initial ramp-up that Gulfstream had to slow the flow temporarily while completions caught up. Phebe Novakovic, CEO of Gulfstream parent company General Dynamics, dubbed this a “disequilibrium,” and eliminating it took several months. But production ramped back up, and within two years of the aircraft’s entering service, the 100th G650 was delivered–a milestone reached a year ago.
The facility incorporated a few significant changes in production to assist with the flow. These included the introduction of precision-build carts and wider use of machined parts, “all of which contribute to tighter tolerances, reducing the effort required to assemble the aircraft,” Collett said. The company installed workstations at each build area, enabling technicians to rely on electronic model-based design and work instructions. “This increases efficiencies, because technicians can see exactly what they need in 3-D to proceed with the build process,” he said.
Perhaps one of the most significant change is the use of an integrated panel assembly cell (IPAC) to install frames to bonded panels. Using chemically bonded panels dramatically reduced hand riveting. This improved skin quality, reduced the number of fasteners and “lessens cabin air leakage when the tube is pressurized,” he said. With the use of IPAC and its other efficiencies, the G650 has 50 percent fewer parts and 80 percent fewer fasteners than the G550. The change reduces both cost and noise in the factory.
This evolution continued with the opening of two factories for the G500/600, each larger than the previous two, encompassing 400,000 sq ft apiece. These facilities were part of an additional $500 million expansion strategy that Gulfstream announced in 2010. The first opened in September 2012 for research and development on wing manufacturing. That facility is now used for wing and tail construction for both the G500 and G600, marking a shift for the manufacturer, which previously had outsourced that work. The second facility, used for fuselage production and final assembly, opened in September last year in time for the rollout of the G500.
The new facilities build on improvements incorporated in the G650 facility. But instead of using the IPAC, which is stationary, Gulfstream has added an integrated multi-panel assembly cell tool, which moves in concert with the “work piece” or section under development. Collett noted this improves accessibility when workers need to reach the more challenging areas of a given section.
Gulfstream has also added robotics in the wing assembly area to drill the majority of the panel, particularly in challenging areas such as near the root, he said. The factory has begun to fold in so-called “additive manufacturing,” or 3-D prototyping, to produce tools and create prototype parts, he said.
As its manufacturing has slowly evolved, the company has looked beyond the bounds of aerospace for new concepts and techniques. “Gulfstream has visited several high-end carmakers to see how they approach design and manufacturing,” Collett said. “We have also looked at the yachting industry, which has some similarities to aircraft in terms of furniture and the use of space.” Similarly, in completions, the manufacturer has explored the commercial furniture industry. In turn, Gulfstream has showcased its advancements to not only other General Dynamics divisions, but also to NASA.
The new factories have been busy building prototypes and components as the company ramps up for deliveries of the G500 in 2018 and the G600 a year later.
Gulfstream now occupies a total of 3.2 million sq ft in Savannah.