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A Northrop Grumman technician puts finishing touches on the center fuselage section of the F-35 prior to delivery to F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin. (Northrop Grumman)

New SAE standard focuses on manufacturing management

A soon-to-be-published SAE International standard, AS6500, is designed to encourage suppliers and OEMs to put more focus on manufacturability during the early phases of a product’s life cycle. The objective: more reliable, affordable, and on-schedule weapons systems.

“The standard will help achieve that by requiring certain activities to be accomplished and certain assessments of manufacturing maturity to be done early in the life cycle,” the sponsor of the standard, David Karr, told Aerospace Engineering. “It applies all the way through development and production—and even in the sustainment phase, so when major modifications to weapons systems are being done, it will also cover those major modifications.”

From a Quality Management System perspective, the industry is well covered by ISO 9000 and AS9100, Karr said. “But there was a gap in the manufacturing management area for which there were no government or commercial standards available.”

“AS6500 Manufacturing Management Program” will cover that gap. The standard is currently in the balloting process and is expected to be published in the fall of 2014.

The geographical origin of AS6500 is Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH, where Karr works in the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center as Technical Advisor for Manufacturing & Quality. The contextual origin is MIL-STD-1528, a military document that described manufacturing management requirements. “That document was written in the 1970s,” Karr pointed out. “We’ve come a long way since then. We’ve learned a lot of things and have a lot of new practices, so this is a significant update to that standard.”

Something else happened in the intervening years: MIL-STD-1528 and related documents became casualties of a war on standards.

Karr tells the story: “From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, we had a lot of military specifications and standards governing…quality and manufacturing management that we would put in contracts to explicitly lay out what our requirements and expectations were relative to manufacturing management. In the mid-1990s we went through an initiative called Acquisition Reform and that did away with all those specs and standards. The result was a lack of standardization which resulted in a significant amount of variability in how each program managed their manufacturing operations. The result of that was just as much variability in outcomes: some programs might have done OK, some programs might have had a lot of problems.”

Elaborating, Karr recalled that industry was asking for less regulation, “So the Department of Defense said, ‘OK, we’ll get rid of all of those standards, give you free reign, and open things up for a lot more creativity and more opportunities for industry to do things smartly. Unfortunately, that just didn’t always work out.”

Cost overruns and quality problems associated with weapon systems became evident not only in news reports, but also in reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Mil Standards retreat contributed to the problem, Karr said: “At least on the Air Force side of things, I’d say that we’ve really not been good customers because we didn’t explicitly spell out our manufacturing requirements in Requests for Proposals.”

Another DOD philosophy that has contributed to the current state of affairs is a greater tolerance for risk as it relates to manufacturing maturity—“especially compared to how the commercial industry does things,” Karr said. “Commercial industry spends a lot of time, effort and money making sure their manufacturing processes are stable and capable and mature before they go into production. Unfortunately, we don’t mirror some of the commercial industry’s practices when it comes to maturing our production processes.”

It eventually became clear that a plan was needed to improve manufacturing standardization within DOD. In December 2012, the DOD created a working group to carry out that effort. Karr was appointed lead. In addition to drafting a working document, the group also was directed to select an outside organization to create a commercial, vs. military, standard. In September 2013, SAE International was selected for that work. A new SAE committee, G-23 Manufacturing Management, was formed. Consisting of approximately an equal number of DOD officials and industry (including representation from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE, GE, and Northrop Grumman), the roughly 40 G-23 members in 2014 reviewed and revised the initial draft standard.

Among the manufacturing management tools required by the standard is Manufacturing Readiness Levels which, Karr said, “are quickly becoming the generally accepted approach, at least within the DOD industry, and even in some other industries, for measuring your manufacturing maturity and level of risk. It’s a tool that the standard imposes that’s widely recognized and has a common language that everyone understands. The standard addresses the use of that tool very early on in the life cycle so that early on we understand where our manufacturing risks are and we can start addressing them.”

Producibility Analysis, Process FMEA, and Key Characteristics are among other tools.

Karr noted that the standard is designed for application across military and commercial sectors, and for customization such as for build-to-print shops that do not deal with initial product designs. The standard can serve as a reference for everyone from the vice president of manufacturing operations “all the way down to the factory manager, and the manufacturing engineers.”

The standard will be incorporated into new Air Force contracts soon after it is adopted, Karr said. It may be applied in its entirety or tailored to each program’s specific needs.

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