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Smiles ahead - that's the Liebherr motto

Posted 29 January 2018 · Add Comment

Liebherr-Aerospace is one of the world’s leading aerospace systems original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) with an unblemished reputation for quality. As Chuck Grieve reports, this is much due to hard work, continuous investment and a long-term vision.

The floors in Leibherr-Aerospace’s factories in Germany and France look clean enough to eat off. The air is fresh. The vast array of machinery emits a low, steady rumble. Workers greet visitors and each other with a nod and smile.
Welcome to the future of manufacturing and precision engineering.
Liebherr, the family-owned group with interests ranging from aerospace and construction to hotels and household appliances, is a progressive organisation with the inclination and means to take a long-term approach to business and customer relationships.
Its aerospace division, established in 1960, is one of the world’s leading suppliers in this competitive sector, designing, developing, manufacturing and servicing integrated on-board systems.
It concentrates on five areas: air management, flight control and actuation, landing gear, gears and gearboxes, and electronics.
In each area, said Josef Gropper, managing director and chief operating officer (COO) for production, purchasing and asset investments: “We are one of the few worldwide companies able to provide full systems to our airframer customers.”
Liebherr systems fly on wide-bodied aircraft, commuter aircraft, regional jets, business jets, military aircraft and helicopters of almost all major airframers. “We are on board most of the major aircraft programmes launched over the last 20 years,” he said.
In terms of volume, the Airbus A320 is the most important of the many current programmes for Liebherr. Going forward, the company’s focus is also on the Boeing 777x, Bombardier C-Series, Embraer E-Jet, and the Rolls-Royce UltraFan programmes, the latter signalling a move into the aero engine market.
In addition, Liebherr-Aerospace offers extensive customer services based on a worldwide network with repair and maintenance services, technical support, documentation and spare parts logistics.
Liebherr-Aerospace contributed €1.3 billion ($1.5bn) to total group sales of €9 billion in 2016. That represented an increase of nearly 5% in turnover for the division. It employs 5,400 people, mainly on its four manufacturing sites in Germany and France.
If there’s a secret to its success, it could be the company’s huge investments in research and development (R&D) and testing. Last year, the aerospace and transportation division invested about €70 million ($82m) in R&D: more than 17% of revenue and “far above the industry average”.
One result, Gropper said proudly, is Liebherr’s 100% record for delivery of systems to Airbus. So rigorous is Liebherr’s attention to detail in manufacturing, assembly and testing that it is one of a small number of system suppliers whose components are delivered directly to the Airbus assembly line.
Each of Liebherr-Aerospace’s four manufacturing sites in Germany and France has benefited from the investment and continuous improvement that is the company’s hallmark.
At Lindenberg, in southern Germany, a major expansion begun in 2012 to cater for growing demand, has increased the manufacturing plant’s footprint 20% to more than 160,000sqm. It employs 2,700 people, including 127 apprentices, “which is important for us”, said Gropper.
The just-completed modernisation and extension has given Lindenberg a new assembly line, new surface treatment facility and new automated logistics line. Additionally, test and qualification work is now carried out in a new dedicated hall.
The second German site in Friedrichshafen has evolved into the company’s centre of excellence for manufacturing gears and gearboxes. Here, too, investment is transforming an older factory with the latest five-axis turning and milling centres and a reorganised manufacturing flow.
In France, the recent refurbishment of the assembly hall at Liebherr-Toulouse, the company’s centre of excellence for air management systems, included a reorganisation of workflows and workstations. Increased automation and new man-machine interfaces feature in the new heat exchanger manufacturing line.
Thirty minutes from Toulouse, at Campsas, existing workshops have been extended and refurbished, and a new machine hall added to make the site a centre of excellence for precision machining of parts for the air management systems.
Despite its size, Liebherr remains a private company; the descendants of the founder, Hans Liebherr, are active in its management. Their involvement, said Gropper, encourages long-term thinking and a high level of investment in technology. It is what drives the company’s embrace of ‘industry 4.0’ with its emphasis on automation, seamless human-machine interface, paperless working and sustainability.
Evidence of this is clear in all the Liebherr-Aerospace factories. In Lindenberg, for example, radio frequency identification (RFID) is being introduced in 2018 for order tracking and management. That work dovetails with sophisticated part labelling for Airbus and Boeing. Quality testing of the labelling system is under way on Airbus types.
Hans Liebherr’s belief that keeping important processes in-house was vital to maintaining quality remains part of the company’s philosophy. Its precision machining operations feed its assembly lines; sophisticated testing is done alongside where possible.
People are important to Liebherr, and it pays dividends in quality management. By reorganising shop floor management, integrating traditional white and blue-collar roles and responsibilities – involving machine minders in redesign of assembly lines, for example – and breaking down silos with cross-functional meetings, the company has increased its ability to detect potential issues and deal with them quickly.
Liebherr-Aerospace refuses to stand still or rest on its laurels. Its relentless R&D includes two additive manufacturing (AM) development cells, in Lindenberg and Toulouse, where teams of researchers study the possibilities of titanium, aluminium and inconel alloys. Working with Airbus, they have created critical parts (in this case, a flight control actuator) and installed them on the A380 – a world-first. The focus now is on industrialising the process alongside work to determine other parts where a market need would support serial AM production.
The company is also involved in the European more electric aircraft (MEA) initiative. Prototypes of fully electrical air conditioning systems flew on an ATR regional turboprop and A320 in 2016. It signals Liebherr’s intention to become a centre of excellence for on-board electronics, an area where the aerospace division benefits from group capabilities through Liebherr-Elektronik.
In its original OEM role, Liebherr-Aerospace has been “accompanying” its customers in the incremental steps they’ve been taking over the last few years to enhance the performance of their products.
“Together with them, we’re preparing the next generation of aircraft that will rely on disruptive technologies,” said Gropper. “Our technologies will be there to make their next-generation aircraft a reality.”

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