Lycoming Engines' drive to the top of the world's general aviation industry is running on all cylinders thanks to the company's first foray into piston manufacturing in more than 40 years.
On Wednesday, company officials, employees and corporate partners met on the company's Williamsport plant floor to celebrate the launch of the one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art process.
The last time the company manufactured pistons was in the late 1960s, and that process in no way resembled the process celebrated Wednesday, said company senior vice president and general manager Michael Kraft.
The process is contained in a multi-million dollar manufacturing cell - or "mini factory" - that transforms cylindrical aluminum forgings - called "billets" - into pistons used for the company's general
aviation aircraft engines, said company vice president of operations Don Wagner.
The billet goes through four separate, but connected, machines during the manufacturing process. An automated system moves the pieces from one machine to the next, according to machine operator Rick Edler.
The cell does more than manufacture pistons, Wagner said.
Automated quality control processes, integrated with the manufacturing process, ensures each piston is exactly to specifications.
"This includes all kinds of sophisticated quality inspection routines integrated with the process flow and automated so they do not disrupt the (manufacturing) flow," Wagner said. "As each sub process is completed, the quality inspection is completed before (the piece) is allowed to go to the next station."
"It's a very integrated approach to ensure the process only makes good pieces," he said.
In addition to the automated inspection process, every fifth piston is removed and manually checked, said tool designer Barry Rider.
"This is as technologically advanced as it gets," said Verne Wepener, Lycoming Engines director of procurement.
The process, developed through a partnership between Lycoming Engines, technology company Cosworth Group of England, and high performance machine tool company Takisawa of Japan, was custom-designed for Lycoming Engines, Wagner said.
Cosworth was instrumental in designing the machine line, process and piston used by Lycoming Engines, Wepener said.
It takes six to eight minutes for the process to transform a billet into a finished piston, said manufacturing engineer David Schneider. Once the process is started, one piston can be manufactured every two to four minutes, depending on its size, Schneider said.
Pistons weigh about four pounds and are made in two sizes, with diameters of 4.5 and 5 inches, he said.
Having piston manufacturing "in house" provides the company with complete control over the process, Wagner said.
"Forty years ago, pistons were made here in Williamsport. In the interim they have been purchased from an outside source," he said.
"Now we don't have to worry if there is a supplier out there to fill our needs," company spokesman Scott Miller said. "We can fill our own needs."
Cosworth Group CEO Tim Routsis, who was on hand for the celebration, called the manufacturing process "world class" and a "unique capability" for the company.
"This (technology) puts (Lycoming Engines) ahead of the pack," Routsis said. "It is far in excess of anything Lycoming's competitors have."
According to Kraft, the return of piston manufacturing is one small step in the company's quest for excellence on all levels of its operations, from safety to quality assurance to on-time delivery of products.
The company's dedication to "relentless improvement" has resulted in industry recognition and millions of dollars in reduced operating expenses since 2004, he said.
Fred Strader, president of Textron Systems Corp. of Wilmington, Mass., the company under whose umbrella Lycoming Engines operates, said corporate investment in the piston manufacturing process is the result of trust developed with Lycoming Engines' leadership and employees.
"Talk is cheap," Strader said. "(This is) about putting your money where your mouth is."
Strader called the company's successful and all-encompassing drive to improve "a real success story," not only within the company but in America.
Wagner said manufacturing pistons in-house will "supply all of our needs for all of our value streams, including engines, overhauls and spare parts throughout the world."
"The impact and return on this investment will be to improve our competitive advantage in the industry," he said.