Innovation in the aerospace supply chain

Bombardier Aerospace’s Stephen Cowan discusses improving the supply chain to meet business needs.

For Stephen Cowan, competitiveness and risk mitigation are the two main challenges faced by Bombardier Aerospace as the company navigates the world of procurement.

As Vice-President for supply chain and fabrications, he is responsible for 1,500 people in Northern Ireland. He admits that his job “keeps him up at night.”

The constant pressure of the sector means that Bombardier must stay competitive. To put it in context, one-third of the global supply of aircraft seats is manufactured by the firm.

Cowan remarks: “We’re under massive pressure from the airlines to sell our product much cheaper so they can then acquire them and stave off the competition because more and more of our product now is going outside our manufacturing areas, concentrating on higher technology equipment.”
There is also a real need to mitigate risk: “We’re dealing with suppliers all over the world so they need to demonstrate that they’ve got continuity [and] they can continue producing in the event of a disaster because their production lines are running at high production rates and we can’t stop them at all.”
Cowan is always keen to point out that there is no competitive advantage to being located in Northern Ireland. Very few manufacturers are left, hence the need for innovation. Bombardier looks to the automotive industry for inspiration –particularly the Toyota production system and the sector’s emphasis on sharing best practice.

Bombardier is addressing its challenges by investing in the supply chain and promoting more collaboration in order to improve growth and competitiveness. “We have an achieving excellence system, which is really our flavour of the Toyota production system,” he explains.

The programme 21st Century Supply Chains (SC21) aims to achieve world class supply chains in order for the UK to become the global leader in the aerospace, defence and security industry. In the last 12 months, almost 98 per cent of SC21 suppliers delivered on time compared to less than 71 per cent of all local suppliers to the company. Bombardier is investing in the scheme along with Invest NI, Enterprise Ireland and UK trade organisation ADS which specialises in the aerospace, defence, security and space industries. Last year, SC21 was also rolled out in the Republic of Ireland.

Bombardier has facilities in Casablanca and Mexico and with new emerging economies, a high quality supply chain is required globally. On SC21, he comments: “It would be regarded as a competitive advantage so the UK’s not that keen to export it because we have a lot of competition in South America and Asia.”

In conclusion, Cowan notes: “If we can share that best practice, it helps the UK suppliers and makes them more competitive, more available to win work from other primes as well – that’s where we are putting the energy in.”

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