Aerospace goes back to work: the infrastructure factors

Welcome to blog 3 in the ‘Reopening and rebuilding the aerospace sector following COVID-19’ series. In the first blog I discussed the challenges of restoring confidence in the travelling public, and my second blog we covered the human factors to consider on the sector’s return to work; which brings us nicely to this blog which will cover the infrastructure considerations when reopening aerospace manufacturing plants, offices and other places of work.

Rebooting operations following lockdown

The world is in flux as Governments and organizations continue to actively manage the ongoing COVID-19 situation. Generally speaking we see some semblance of control, not full control but an overall reduction in transmission rates and the R number (infection rates), organizations have been planning and executing a return to work.

Shutting down a facility may have been relatively straight forward, or, if you have some special processes or facilities that require specific shut-down protocols, it might have been more difficult, time consuming and not without risk.

For those facilities with specific shut down protocols, bringing them back on line might well be an expensive task, one that will only be undertaken if the management is sure or sufficiently sure, that it can invest time and resources and not expect to have to shut it down again. So there will have been some risk-based thinking applied, with factors involved including cost, health and safety of personnel, business risks such as; is the market ready to start receiving our output, and can this be sustained.

But the COVID-19 risks have not gone away. We have seen over the months and weeks that areas with a low or near-zero infection rate can suddenly spike, with a surge in cases and a government reaction of immediate containment, which may involve re-instigation of local and even national lock-down.

So in deciding to recommence operations, this risk may well have been considered, but even if this is the case it is not entirely predictable. But sometimes one must move forward, recognizing and managing the risks.

Survive, Stabilize, Rebuild and Resilient. We have been through 1 and probably 2, the stabilize phase. Phase 2 may have been the shut down for some, reduced working, or if you are fortunate, business (almost) as usual. So we are looking here at phase 3 in the main, with an eye toward phase 4. It would, I suggest, be unwise to leap into rebuilding without looking forward to and planning for the next phase; becoming resilient.

Phase 3 asks; how do we adopt our working practices to recover and start to rebuild operational resilience in the next normal? Note it says “next normal”. This is because we are still in flux, so today’s normal is not tomorrow’s. What are the long-term effects of current changes on our supply chain resilience? What technological innovations should be maintained to benefit the business?

Phase 4 asks; How do we plan and develop a stronger, more sustainable and resilient organization for the future? Note the words sustainable and resilient; these are key, as they are forward looking, not just trying to solve today’s issues but anticipating and planning for the future.

It continues; How do we assess and make provision to ensure long-term team knowledge, management and information resilience? So this is looking at your organization’s knowledge, the things that the older hands know and can do, which the younger hands may not. In times of difficulty, it is tempting to let go some of the older members on the assumption that they have pensions, are perhaps less driven (often a false assumption!) and that with the reduction in head count, it is better to keep the young blood, who will be enthusiastic and driven to advance. But they don’t have the knowledge, the experience, so ignore this factor at your peril.

But let’s step back to the infrastructure side. Your buildings and facilities have been shut down, or had reduced operations and most likely (as maintenance personnel will also have been affected by COVID-19), reduced maintenance. What needs attention now and what needs to be recommissioned?

You have two elements to consider;

  • What needs to be serviced/maintained or recommissioned?
  • What do you have to change to adapt to the next normal?

We are all focussing on hygiene and the prevention of contamination. Your people will certainly be looking very hard at this and how you are managing it; it is a very real concern to them and their families.

Your infrastructure was designed (or evolved) to meet the old, extinct needs. What needs to change due to COVID-19 and the increased need for hygiene and prevention of contamination?

These two factors are linked; they cannot be considered in isolation.

Adapting facilities for the next normal

When considering what adaptations you may need to make to your facilities, you have to think about a range of new factors, such as;

  • Touch points; door handles, computer buttons, touch-screens, bannisters, lift/escalator buttons, security key pads.
  • Shared equipment; people working together sharing tools such as torque wrenches, or dipping into boxes of consumables.
  • Ablutions/Restroom facilities; door handles, flushing buttons, taps/faucets; all are points of hand contact.
  • One-way circuits around facilities.
  • Proximity of personnel. Dividers, spaces between people, facing away from each other.

For each of these seemingly simple things, there are consequences such as communication, workflows, handovers. We covered a lot of this in our second blog and podcast which looked at human factors. So this follow-on blog is now inviting you to take those human factors into account when you start thinking about your infrastructure and how it needs to change.

What additional resources you will need (multiple tool sets instead of shared for example), automation wherever possible to eliminate touch, such as auto-opening doors.

Areas with controlled environments such as inspection areas and special process areas. NDT may need a new means of access, or means of opening, closing and controlling access.

If there are restricted areas in terms of volume, small rooms for example, how many people can now work in there concurrently? Might you need to expand the areas? Might you need changes to the environmental controls such as air exchange rates, filtering with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. The virus is 0.01 to 0.1 microns, so normal filters in air conditioning systems will not stop it. And if you fit HEPA or similar filters, how often will they need to be changed, and how will you handle them, as they may be considered a bio-hazard? They may need to be bagged and destroyed in a controlled manner.

What is the air exchange rate? i.e. how often is the air in a room replaced? A simple rule for COVID-19 is that outside is best, but if inside, the more fresh air the better. Get rid of stale air. Does your existing system meet the needs for now and the future regarding these? Filtering, air exchange rate?

This applies to any ventilation system.

At first, it was thought that the virus was not airborne, but recently the thinking has changed and it is now thought to be transmitted by air, as well as all the previous means, mainly touch. So there are two lessons here;

  1. You need to consider air as a means of transmission, so how will you manage it?
  2. The thinking on the virus changes, so you need to keep up to speed and react as the knowledge and understanding increases and the regulatory/government advice is revised. Then revise your infrastructure as required.

Many facilities are closed, controlled environments, with air conditioning instead of opening windows, due to the need for a constant work environment (for product consistency, or heating cost/environmental reasons). This applies to offices as well as factories.

A way to measure the exchange rate is to measure CO2. We all exhale CO2, and measuring it can indicate whether enough fresh air is getting in. The usual CO2 level is 400ppm. A well-ventilated room will have up to 800ppm. Any higher is a sign that more air is needed. Note; this is just an indicator for this discussion; take professional advice on this.

As an example of this;

As reported in the Wiley online library, last year, researchers in Taiwan reported on the effect of ventilation on a tuberculosis outbreak at Taipei University. Many of the rooms in the school were under-ventilated and had CO2 levels above 3,000 ppm. When engineers improved air circulation and got CO2 levels under 600 ppm, the outbreak stopped completely. According to the research, the increase in ventilation was responsible for 97% of the decrease in transmission.

If you have air-conditioning, and even if it does meet the need (based on our knowledge so far) regarding filtering and air exchange rate, there are issues arising from being shut down.

You also have water supplies for taps/faucets in the ablutions/rest-rooms, heating (winter will come eventually) and of course water supplies for production. These may have been sitting unused and un-maintained for several months, so there is a risk of contagion, not just from COVID-19 but from other pathogens such as Legionnaires Disease or Pontiac Fever. So before anyone goes back into work, consider getting these serviced and verified as clean. Confirm and review the air exchange rates and air filtration rates. Identify and implement any changes you may to make before the return to work.

Take expert advice for the details; this is just a note about a potential risk.

As an example of things that may get overlooked, many years ago I audited an organization that processed drawn wire, and part of the process was to pass hot wires through a long, open, cooling tank of water, which as it was being warmed by the wires, was at a constant temperature, right in the range for legionnaires to flourish; 77 – 108F /25 – 42 C.  I asked if they had ever tested for legionnaires or other pathogens; they looked at me blankly, as it had never occurred to them. I suggested they look into it, and next time I went back they confirmed that it had been a high-risk area and they now had measures in place to treat the water.

Fork lifts and lifting tackle. Have these been maintained during any shut-down? Are batteries safe? Are the hydraulic fluids clean (particulates coming out of suspension may cause problems), and levels correct? Is servicing and testing all in date to comply with regulations such as LOLER (Lifting operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations) and PUWER (Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations)?

How many operators are there and how will you add “cleaning before and after use” to the maintenance and operation regime? Steering wheels for example; If one operator jumps off and another jumps on, touching the wheel could cause transmission of infection. And remember the human factors in your planning for the new rules and procedures.

Calibrated tools and equipment. Torque wrenches, CMMs, verniers, welding equipment (special process too), shadowgraphs;

  • Have they gone out of calibration during the lockdown?
  • Do you have enough to prevent tool sharing and so eliminate that risk of contamination?
  • Have they been stored correctly to prevent deterioration?

If you bring in new calibrated items to increase your resource, make sure they all go on the calibration register; this is easily overlooked and results in a problem downstream. They may not be calibrated on receipt, so you may need to add calibration to the purchase order or get them calibrated when you receive them. And make sure the calibration is traceable to national standards, ideally done by a 17025 certified calibration house. On which subject, make sure the tool you want calibrated is in their schedule for their 17025 certification.

Chemicals, paints, carbon fibre, elastomers, and similar items requiring precise storage requirements; and those with less precise requirements such as metals; Have they been stored and preserved in accordance with requirements during the lockdown?

Freezers, light protection, humidity; have these been maintained throughout the lockdown? How would you know? Do you have monitoring systems with records you can check? Have there been power cuts while the building was shut? Did the last person out when you closed down also switch off the power, being a good employee trying to save money?

If material stocks have a shelf-life, are they still in date? Can you use them as they are, or do you need to replace them or perhaps, if permitted, apply for extensions to shelf life? Make sure you have the records of all these to demonstrate continuing compliance, and to protect the integrity of your delivered product.

So you will need to run an inventory and check these and other requirements have been met. Then replace as necessary or apply for extensions. If in doubt, replace; it is cheaper and safer than having a problem after delivery of non-conforming product, and possibly affecting flight safety.

Special processes –

  • Welding – skill fade. Human factors per the previous blog. Welding kit should be calibrated.
  • Chemical baths– recommission and reprove the process before beginning production. Make sure the monitoring and measuring equipment, the calibrated instruments for the process, in date and functioning.

This is not a definitive list of course, merely a prompt to help your thinking and to ensure that you address all the elements, all the risks and areas of concern, and link these to human factors, when you plan and execute the return to work.

And remember the Organizational Resilience model phases 3 and 4; in doing this planning, look ahead to the next normal, and look beyond the immediate and on to building resilience into your organization. And remember that this includes all aspects; infrastructure, people (Human Factors, engagement, knowledge), the market, identification and anticipation of what might coming up in the next few years.

And before you power on…

And as a final thought for the return to work; look at your product, and make sure things haven’t changed while you have been shut down, or time limits exceeded, such as FAIRs – have any FAIRs lapsed due to elapsed time?

Configuration; have your customers changed the configuration? Revised drawings or models? Is the WIP that you left on the machine now obsolete? Do you need to revise production plans and routers?

Was the WIP also protected and preserved during the lockdown?

How has your supply chain been affected? You may need to collaborate up and down the chain to get all these right before you push the power on button again.

Brendon Hill, Global Head of Aerospace

For more information, guidance and support materials as you navigate the next phase of recovery following COVID-19, visit our dedicated aerospace web page.

You can also follow my ‘Reopening and Rebuilding’ the Aerospace Sector podcast series here. Look out for the Aerospace playlist.

About the author

With over 40 years’ experience in aerospace and engineering Brendon leads the strategic direction of BSI’s aerospace sector. Brendon collaborates with industry bodies to drive innovation and is an international speaker, leading the way for a safe, secure future for the sector. Previous experience includes 26 years as a British Army Officer and Aircraft Engineer, both writing and implementing the quality management system and providing technical support to British Army aviation. He has also worked at a senior level in manufacturing in aerospace and other high-risk sectors.