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Tapping the Lean Machine: How a Jet-Engine-Servicing Plant in Brazil Solved the Puzzle of Missing Spare Parts

April 05, 2023 | by Chris Norris

Soon after the pandemic hit in 2020, a team of logistics employees at a GE Aerospace plant in Brazil that services jet engines detected something odd, and worrisome: The number of available spare parts, used to repair engines, had dropped dramatically because of a cut in air freight deliveries. And those that did arrive often came in patchwork fashion and wound up stuck on the ground at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport, stalled by lengthy import-paperwork delays. The consequences were potentially serious. About 30 international airlines depend on the 2,000 employees of GE’s Celma Overhaul and Repair Shop to keep their engines flying — and turnaround time and safety are obviously crucial.

Celma’s logistics and supplier teams soon got to work to figure out a solution that was beyond its doors. Troubleshooting its supply chain, employees helped external partners, including port and ground transportation companies, fine-tune their operations to expedite deliveries and un-jam the import declaration process that registers engines, materials, and parts. Celma’s internal tracking began to show benefits by July 2021, and by the end of 2022 they had reduced declarations/registration time from 2.2 days to 0.6 days, or by 74% — which improved cash flow by $13.9 million.

The success story of Celma’s team is a testament to the power of lean management, a set of tools that calls for continuous improvement that is at the heart of GE’s transformation. This was hardly Celma’s first try at lean. In fact, employees there have been deploying the philosophy since 2000, and today they have been so transformed by its principles that they were able to apply them externally — to Brazil’s airport, freight ports, and ground transport agencies, finding “waste,” or inefficiency. “It was a good example of our systemwide approach,” says Celma Plant Manager Julio Talon. “Connecting multiple departments in different areas, aligning them along common lines.”

This kind of big-picture capability is a product of Celma’s long, steady gestation within lean. “We started in 2000 by introducing some independent lean initiatives to our sites,” says Maximiliano Aguiar, lean manager of the Celma plant, who joined in 2018. “This included a suggestion program where each employee can suggest ideas to improve the process that they’re working in.”

The suggestion program is crucial for the successful implementation of lean principles. Lean sets the idea of “kaizen,” or constant improvement, into every single knowable task within an existing system. Frequent, incremental adjustments, even microscopic ones, build momentum throughout a plant, infuse its culture, and over time accrue value. “People become more engaged because they see the results on the shop floor,” Aguiar says. “They see their lives improving, they’re doing tasks with less effort. And they feel more included, because it gives a voice to everyone. It doesn’t matter if a contribution saves one minute or one day, one dollar or 1,000, they’re all important.”

By 2015, Celma was applying lean to its entire facility. “We used strong data management,” Aguiar says. “We defined constraints and managed them. We had kaizen events” — a weeks-long analysis of a particular cell, followed by a concentrated application of its findings — “improving performance at one site and then building efficiency through the entire process.” When an entire cell is sufficiently aligned with lean principles, it certifies as a Model Line. “This helps leverage lean culture to other cells,” Aguiar says.

An example might involve one production unit repairing a fan on an engine, says Talon. “Which requires welding, machining, heat treatment, inspection — all in one area of the shop.” Over time, as each member of different cells gained confidence in their analysis and voice, ideas for improvement mushroomed. “In the past five years, we’ve been implementing more than 2,000 ideas a year,” Aguiar says. “Some small initiatives will give you big results, but once lean becomes part of the daily culture, you’re able to utilize different techniques, apply tools in different ways, gaining continuous improvement and maximum impact.”

By the time the importing problem with the parts cropped up at the airport, Celma employees were prepared to implement all that for what is an important part of GE Aerospace. At five sites throughout the Serra dos Órgãos valley of Rio de Janeiro, Celma employees disassemble, clean, inspect, repair, assemble, and retest engines including the CF34-10, CF6, CFM56, GEnX, and LEAP.

Celma’s teams first ran kaizen studies that identified constraints, such as the amount of time wasted when spare engine parts were on the ground. Late in 2021, Celma harmonized its internal processes with those at various agencies in its supply chain. They collaborated with Brazil’s port and ground transportation companies, created value-stream maps — a granular analysis of the flow of material and information throughout a company — identified bottlenecks, determined root causes, and found opportunities to reduce waste. When late deliveries threw off the rhythm of GE’s workforce, they introduced a second shift at the plants. They gave visual tracking tools to other agencies, which helped make improvements in document management to expedite the declarations.

“The improvement was made through a yearlong process,” says Aguiar. “It wasn’t a single application of a lean tool, but a systemic application of its principles.” Talon is confident lean will only grow. “Once you build the culture, and the people on the shop floor absorb that culture, we cannot stop lean,” he says, then chuckles at the sci-fi overtones. “It continues to expand almost on its own.”

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GE Aerospace is a world-leading provider of jet and turboprop engines, as well as integrated systems for commercial, military, business and general aviation aircraft.