13 July 2020 Case

GKN Fokker Elmo: Building the Factory of the Future

GKN Fokker Elmo is one of the world leaders in the development and production of electrical cabling in aircrafts and aircraft engines. The majority of the assembly work is still done manually, but in the future Fokker Elmo sees an important role for automation. However, due to strict safety regulations, innovation in the aviation world often takes a long time. Hence the reason for What if Lab: Factory of the Future.
Building the Factory of the Future (video: Blickfänger)

One year after What if Lab, Claudia Stroo, Business Innovation Project Manager at GKN Aerospace, and Bärbel van Zanten from design-research agency IaDea, talk about the steps taken in their collaboration: from idea to pilot.

How did GKN Fokker Elmo, a data-driven technical company, come into contact with the design world?

Claudia: “Michiel Barendse, director of GKN Fokker Elmo, came into contact with Dutch Design Foundation about the What if lab concept, a program that challenges the business community and the design world to come up with specific answers to current issues. Organisations are given the opportunity to work closely with design professionals. He became enthusiastic and wondered what the design world could mean for the company in the next step in their innovation process. By having designers look at us with a fresh and different perspective, we are challenged to come up with solutions that improve the work environment of the operators.”

Fokker Elmo, originally a Dutch company that is now part of GKN Aerospace, is specialised in Electrical Wiring Interconnection Systems. In other words: it supplies the cabling for aircrafts and aircraft engines for both civil and military aviation and has customers such as Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce. On the production floors in the Netherlands, Turkey, China, and India around two thousand operators – mostly women – provide 95% manual labour. It is a labour-intensive and at the same time data-driven process in which they make cable trees in utmost concentration. The ingenious bundles of coloured wires and cables are individually marked, placed in the right shape for installation, often isolated and connected to specified connectors and plugs. This way, around 12,000 cable trees per month are made in various locations across the world.

Image from Blickfänger video

The question was: how do we improve the operators’ workplaces and how can we start building the Factory of the Future?

Claudia: “Even though GKN Fokker Elmo is focusing on automation increasingly, the majority of the operators’ work is manual labour. To perform their tasks they switch between their sources of information dozens of times per product: from instructions and codes on paper, to those on screens or tablets, to the required tools. Those instructions or tools are often elsewhere, so the employees have to get them. This is time-consuming, inefficient, and increases the risk of errors. There is much to be gained by streamlining their various actions better and hence making their work environment more pleasant.

Of the ten agencies that registered, three design agencies were selected to participate in What if lab: IaDea, Van Berlo and Flex/ design. After three strong pitches, industrial designer Bärbel van Zanten and programmer/ IT-architect Roger Paulssen from IaDea were chosen to develop their proposal further.

Bärbel, what is the “secret” to your approach?

Bärbel: “During the master class I found out that there were many innovative ideas within GKN Fokker Elmo already. I suggested that, together with the organisation, we could look at how you can shape the current innovation process in such a way that there is a greater chance that the many innovative ideas can actually be implemented. We specialise in “user experience” and centralise the users. Good insights and challenges quickly emerged in interviews we held with several stakeholders. For example, it became clear that there is no clear process for exploring and implementing ideas properly. As a result, employees experience too little progress. We used these insights during a creative workshop. With 25 employees from different departments – ranging from operators to managers – we came up with solutions that can positively impact the innovation process.”

Claudia: “Bärbel and Roger have a creative professional and personal way of working that is very constructive and creates openness between them and our employees. Due to this everyone was willing to share all kinds of insights that together paint a good picture of our innovation- and our company culture. It became clear that the ideas employees submit sit around for months waiting to be implemented or are not implemented at all. That is not stimulating.”
Bärbel: “Indeed, so that’s why our first step was to bring back transparency. We wanted to offer employees a place where they can talk about their ideas. If openness and visibility is stimulated, ideas will come to life and grow. Therefore, we asked an illustrator to make drawings for various proposals in this creative phase. One of the proposals was a “Golden Idea Café,” an innovation café where people come together, express ideas, present projects, and celebrate when milestones have been reached.”
Claudia: “This is a good example of the added value of a design agency, where creativity is linked to the expertise of a company.”

You work on the Facture of the Future: “Innovation Climate Change” and the “Virtual Library of Experiences.” In the second IaDea study it became clear that transferring knowledge is very time-consuming. Can such a Library be a smart and time-saving solution?

Claudia: “Research and discussions with operators and managers made it clear that information and time is lost when training new employees. Considering much of the work that operators do is based on experience, information cannot always be found in the instruction manuals. When operators work on wiring harnesses that other or new employees continue to work on, it helps if the experienced operators show the others how it works: seeing is understanding. Experienced operators spend a lot of time transferring their knowledge and skills.”

The solution: home-made instructional videos that show how operators work. Selected operators in our factory in China were equipped with small cameras mounted on their chests. These cameras record in detail how the operators mount the cable harnesses. The recordings are then uploaded to the “Virtual Library of Experiences” and are made available to other operators in addition to the standard technical work instructions.

The “Virtual Library of Experiences” is already running a pilot in the new factory in India with the videos recorded in China. Due to the many new employees it is a good test location. We will soon receive the interview results about their experiences. If it turns out to work well, we will expand the pilot. It is motivating for everyone at GKN Fokker Elmo to see that a good idea is not left untouched, but is quickly implemented in the workplace.”

Image from Blickfänger video

You often hear about misunderstandings and prejudice between the business and design worlds.

Bärbel: “My experience is that technology and creativity complement each other perfectly and provide mutual inspiration. I also like that we can show that designers do not only make beautiful tangible products, but that shaping processes to support change strategies can also be the role of designers.
In addition, as a design researcher I am not afraid of technology and it helps to collaborate with IT architect Roger Paulssen on this project. His technical background is valuable for me to translate it into the more human, emotional part of the process.”

Claudia: “GKN Fokker Elmo is a technical company with a social business structure. We are open to help and information from outside, that is important in our cooperation with others. Our managing director said: “We are a technical company and the industry prescribes a lot, but we need more intuition and human knowledge. We need to include feelings.” The creative world of IaDea proves to be a valuable addition to our expertise.”