In an effort to make its products more competitive, the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company introduces a new inspection method which helps pinpoint deviations from design standards within an hour.

The iPad visualisation method is just part of the lean production concept that is being introduced at the Sukhoi factory. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Sukhoi quality inspectors at the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC) have been provided with 30 iPad tablets aimed at enhancing and speeding up the inspection process. Inspectors are now able to take pictures of assembled structures at inspection point.

The pictures of the interim assembly phases are then uploaded onto desktops. According to Andrey Kalinovsky, president of SCAC, this enables them to pinpoint quickly and precisely the sections responsible for any deviations from design standards.

The aviation company thinks the experiment - started in the spring - has so far been successful, as it now takes only up to one hour to detect failure points, where it previously took almost a month. An additional 50 iPads are expected to be acquired shortly, in order to keep an eye on the entire production cycle.

SCAC is up against a major challenge. As pointed out by Oleg Panteleyev, head of analysis at information portal Aviaport, the company has to deal with two processes at the same time – developing an entirely new product and optimising mass production while boosting productivity.

In his opinion, new planes that have been in operation for two or three years always have more defects than those that have been flying for 10–15 years (the Sukhoi Superjet completed its maiden flight five years ago). The expert believes that the producer will need another year or two to do away with its ‘childhood illnesses’.

When the finished plane is handed over to the customer, a few dozen minor faults are normally detected – most of them are deviations from design standards and some wrongly-sized components.

SCAC plans to cut the number of defects when handing the jet over to the customer to a third of the current level by giving iPads to its inspectors and introducing other arrangements to streamline production.

“People can make mistakes, the human factor can’t be avoided, but these mistakes shouldn’t be passed on to further production phases,” Kalinovsky says.

A plane goes through seven assembly phases, with around 40 workers engaged at each phase. Previously, the completion of operations was only marked on paper: checks were made on the plane’s ‘passport’by confirming whether it met or not engineering specifications.

If defects were revealed when the plan was being handed over to the customer, the quality service took about a month to sift through piles of documents. With the new system, a database of 17,000 pictures has already been created, which enables inspectors to pinpoint and systematise typical faults.

For instance, if the clearance between pipes is 1 millimetre too wide, you can look through the pictures to see that the space was 5 millimetres instead of 4 millimetres, as early as at the first assembly phase.

Kalinovsky says that the iPad visualisation method is just part of the lean production concept that is being introduced at the Sukhoi factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. And it is worth noting that the idea to use iPads for this purpose is itself unprecedented.

Several years ago, Kalinovsky visited a Boeing production plant in Seattle and he was extremely impressed by the lean lab of the world’s leading aircraft builder - which he is now trying to replicate.

Not all of the workers, however, have embraced the new rules, because at first glance they make their work more complicated.

As a rule, about 10 percent of employees turn out to be conservatives and oppose innovation, while 10 percent welcome everything that can improve the quality of assembly. The remaining 80 percent take a wait-and-see attitude and are ready to follow the lead.

Piece production eventually evolves into mass production: this year, 26 jets will be made, up from 12 in 2012 and five in 2011.

To survive in this competitive market, both at a domestic and international level, the Sukhoi Superjet makers need to change for the better fast, the more so since customers have higher requirements for the new Russian-made plane than for used foreign models.

SCAC needs to develop a package of measures to swiftly respond to the irregularities of the production chain.

“We don’t have five years to streamline the process, we must do this job within 24 months,” Kalinovsky says. There’s no time for long training programmes, although the staff get training.

The visualisation method helps a lot: technical descriptions and specifications written in plain Russian and with figures and 3D models make it easier for young workers to learn the ropes.

The story is first published in Russia Beyond The Headlines. It originally appeared in Russian in Vedomosti