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.
The lay-up process, for example, is divided into five work centers, labeled A through E. “If you are a technician in work center A, you work on simpler parts than if you are a tech in work center E,” says Rubio. “It sounds simple, but it requires a robust system to ensure that people are moving from basic to complex jobs with the right qualifications.”
While the company is very proud of its highly-trained workforce, it’s an ongoing endeavor. “It is a day-to-day effort to recruit talent, not only on the composite [production] side, but other functions as well,” says Rubio. “Everything has to do with the company culture – offering the right working conditions and operating under a certain value set. It’s a team effort from leadership and management all the way to the production floor.” In the past few years, ICON Aircraft’s employee attrition rate has declined from the market average of 10% to less than 3%.
Rubio is excited to be a part of ICON’s transition from a research and development company to a serial manufacturer. “It’s been a great journey,” she says. “It has taken a lot of effort and a lot of heart to get to where we are.”