Aircraft parts production grinds to a halt due to staff shortages

“It’s just a hurricane at the factory,” said company director Guillermo Alonso. “There’s just no time. It’s just produce, produce, produce and find ways to improve your productivity.”

A slowing global economy has begun to address some supply chain shortfalls that hit manufacturers and contributed to inflation. Demand for transportation and air freight has fallen, chip sales are slowing and used car prices in the US are falling.

But aircraft parts makers are still not done with job cuts as planes were grounded during the pandemic, a sign that the supply chain crisis remains unresolved.

In the US, employment in the aviation sector is 8.4% below pre-pandemic levels. In the province of Quebec, where Mitchell is based, the industry is expected to fill 38,000 jobs over the next ten years, according to trade association Aero Montreal. Big foundries such as Precision Castparts Corp of Berkshire Hathaway Inc and Pittsburgh-based Howmet Aerospace, which supplies Boeing, Airbus and General Electric, are hiring after cutting headcount in 2020. But it takes time to train new workers. Boeing CEO David Calhoun warned that labor will remain a bottleneck for the industry for years to come. “I don’t see this being resolved anytime soon,” Calhoun said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference this month. The problem is greatest in the very labour-intensive, difficult-to-automate casting industry. In a recent Jefferies survey, nearly three-quarters of aerospace equipment manufacturers cited castings as the biggest source of shortages. Privately held Mitchell Aerospace is encouraging staff to work overtime, raising wages by 4.75% and offering employees referral bonuses. The company is also trying to hire more women, immigrants and refugees from Ukraine. According to David Wireman, a managing director at AlixPartners, some casting suppliers take as long as 72 weeks to fill orders. Rising interest rates and growing economic uncertainty have made companies hesitant to add capacity as they fear demand could collapse, he said. “It’s going to be a tough time for a long time to come.” IT’S ALL WORK Meanwhile, the battle to find workers is raging through the supply chain, slowing the production of jet engines and airplanes at a time when much of the air travel market is booming. Leesta Industries, a Mitchell customer, is also struggling with delays and quality issues at another casting company. When that manufacturer delivers a month late, Montreal-based Leesta, which makes engine and landing gear components, must adjust to its own deadlines, said President Ernie Staub. “Your actual delivery time for your product is down by a month. You have to anticipate the rest of your work,” he said. Raytheon recently said the company is working “hands-on” due to the tight supply of castings and warned that deliveries of some large commercial Pratt & Whitney engines could be extended until the first quarter of 2023. The company did not specify , when the deliveries will take place.

Rival GE said supply shortages have made it harder to deliver engines on time. Your customers feel the pain. Airbus production targets have fallen, while Boeing warned that supply chain pressures have limited its ability to ramp up production. Mitchell’s Montreal factory begins to buzz before dawn with workers in protective clothing filling mold sections with a mixture of fine sand and a binder. The buzzing and grinding stops in the middle of the afternoon with no employees on another shift.

“It’s all work,” said Alonso, who is looking for shop workers and metal workers. “We have the question.”

Mitchell can only pass on about half of its increased costs to customers. By automating some of Mitchell’s sand casting production by next year, some labor issues and increased costs can be solved and growth can be achieved, Alonso said.

He sees robots replacing a job that requires a worker to remove dirt from castings. The work is repetitive and the part risks being damaged.

“We haven’t pulled the trigger on the investment yet,” Alonso said, “but it’s a necessity.”

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