As efficient as this process is now, the A5 was not always produced this way. The first 21 pre-production aircraft were individually assembled in California with CFRP components manufactured by four third-party vendors. “I remember back in the day, we had a group of technicians who would basically build the aircraft with a toolbox and a series of drawings,” explains Rubio. In 2016, ICON made the critical move to serialize production, which included bringing composite fabrication in-house to improve part quality and developing its own technical expertise.
ICON spent the next several years building its mass production capability from the ground up: The company constructed a 300,000-square-foot facility in Tijuana, acquired state-of-the-art equipment, recruited and trained technicians, and created administrative and quality control systems to support serial production. “We needed to build a machine to build the machine,” explains Rubio.
The Tijuana plant utilizes lean manufacturing principles. For example, to reduce material movement, production flows along a single aisle with stations for lay-up, curing, bonding and finishing processes adjacent to required supplies and support systems, such as shipping. After each manufacturing process is completed, the company’s ICON Production System (IPS) software activates the previous process to begin again. “We have a facility that is designed for a one-flow, lean pull system,” says Rubio.
Developing the company’s composite manufacturing capability didn’t happen overnight, says Rubio. In-house production of the A5’s composite parts was established over several years. Initially, ICON made simpler, flat panels, then progressed to making more complex parts. In the interim, ICON continued to use third-party suppliers as needed to support aircraft production. This deliberate approach gave the company time to purchase equipment, recruit and train staff, and hone its internal systems.
One key challenge was getting to the ideal production rate. “That’s the key component,” asserts Rubio. “You want to make sure that you get the right quality with the right timing.” This involved adjusting cure cycles, man hours, shift schedules, tooling and more. Ramping up production speed was another challenge. Rubio says that the Tijuana facility gradually reduced wing spar production from three weeks to just 1.5 shifts. Total production time for one A5, including final assembly, is now typically eight to 12 weeks.
Building a skilled workforce was also a key component. The Tijuana facility employs approximately 300 team members. Rubio says that because Tijuana didn’t have a vibrant composites industry, ICON has taken the lead in recruiting and developing skilled workers. The company created its own workforce education program, which begins with basic training in lamination and bonding and continues with functional, on-the-job training as technicians advance through a system of tiered workstations.