Safran where the landing gear is made

When you look into Safran Group’s history, you’ll find that the current company encompasses 125 years of aerospace legacy, formed by such iconic companies as Snecma, Sagem, Labinal, Messier, Dowty, Hispano-Suiza, Turbomeca and Zodiac. Those are pretty decent roots for a company that has since expanded to 37 subsidiaries and joint ventures and employs 79,000 people in about 27 different countries worldwide, manufacturing everything from aircraft wiring to landing gear. And there is an outpost focusing on the latter — Safran Landing Systems Canada Inc. — right here in Durham Region.

Safran Landing Systems is the world’s leader in aircraft landing and braking systems, and it operates sites in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico and the United States. The company provides products and support to the commercial, regional, business and military fleets from design to maintenance and repair. “Safran Landing Systems is organized into four divisions: landing gear and integration, wheels and brakes, systems and equipment, and maintenance, repair and overhaul,” explains Deane Weatherby, president of Safran Landing Systems Canada. “Here in Ajax, we’re part of the landing gear and integration division.” Safran Landing Systems currently holds more than 50 percent of the market share in the landing gear sector, and they partner with approximately 25 to 30 aircraft framers around the world, including recognizable names like Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier. Geographically speaking, Ajax is the perfect location for one of the Canadian sites of Safran Landing Systems. “It’s a little-known fact that this region in Ontario is a hub for landing gear,” says Weatherby. “All of the world’s leaders in the sector have a site in the Golden Horseshoe.” With that concentration of business and expertise comes the

Safran Landing Systems has been in the area for 72 years, contributing to regional industry. The current Ajax location is an integrated site with more than 650 employees, including a full team of engineers, as well as a large machine shop where a number of structural components of the landing gear are manufactured. “We have more than 200 engineers, so we do much of the design and testing for the programs we support in North America, and some of the European programs as well,” says Weatherby. Landing gear is an interesting product in that the basic mechanics remain unchanged year over year. “Landing gear design has been relatively stable for the past four or five decades; fundamentally, it hasn’t really changed much. That said, we are constantly looking for ways to be innovative, to improve the product,” says Weatherby. “It might not be noticeable from a surface perspective, but we’re making changes that can have a big impact.”

“Landing gear design has been relatively stable for the past four or five decades; fundamentally, it hasn’t really changed much. That said, we are constantly looking for ways to be innovative, to improve the product.” — Deane Weatherby”

Some of the innovations rolling out at Safran Landing Systems in Ajax involve new materials, and finding ways to make the landing gear lighter, stronger and less expensive. “Weight is key,” says Weatherby. “One of the things we’ve been looking at is using new materials instead of traditional alloys for structural components. Because landing gear bears the weight of an aircraft, there’s obviously an extreme load that needs to travel through the landing gear. You need very strong materials to withstand those loads. Those materials have traditionally been metal alloys, but on the 787-8, a commercial twin aisle Boeing aircraft, we’ve introduced a composite material brace. The strength and resistance to cracking and fatigue is similar to the metal we’ve previously used, but it’s about 20 percent lighter.” This reduces the weight of the landing gear and makes the overall aircraft more efficient.

On the process improvement front, Safran has also launched a very aggressive digital transformation mandate. “We took a look at our key processes and assessed how we could employ technology to transform various tasks,” says Fahmi Mir, regional chief information officer. “We have employed technology like augmented reality, additive manufacturing, internet of things (IoT), analytics, business intelligence and more.” Safran has made it a priority to mine big data and put it to use in a way that is more meaningful than ever. “The largest gains are actually being made in this arena,” says Weatherby. “We’re not reinventing the product, but we’re improving the processes we employ to make that product. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit we can address to make everything more efficient.” 

Digital continuity is one of the ways Safran Landing Systems Canada is changing the way their landing gear is produced. “We can start all the way from the design phase — from when we are approached by a customer — onwards to creating a product and manufacturing the parts, and then to assembling, selling and servicing the product in the field. By looking at that entire value stream, we’re figuring out how to apply new digital technology to improve it and get the most out of it,” says Mir. 

The improvements to digital continuity are simple in concept but complicated in theory. Paper is one example. “There would have been paper at many spots throughout the value stream previously,” says Mir. “We currently have a project where we want to go paperless from beginning to end. So, developing ways to do that will mean better efficiency, as well as a lessened carbon footprint.” Another example can be found in the machine shop. “When we are building landing gear, the work in process has to be placed on some sort of cart,” says Mir. “When you place it on the cart, you need components to secure it there. We were ordering those components before, but now we use our additive manufacturing lab to make those parts ourselves.” 

Mir also adds that access to information has improved: “Before, our operators would have had to search for information. Now they have access to a dashboard where they can just search the operation they’re working on, and everything they need will be populated right on the screen.” 

Weatherby says that all of these improvements are rooted in Safran Landing Systems Canada’s most valuable asset — their people. “We look to our people, who work these processes every day, to learn where we should focus our energies for change and improvement,” says Weatherby. The company even has an Employee Driven Innovation program that allows employees to identify areas and opportunities for improvement. “Ideas can take on any form and function, too,” says Weatherby. “It can be a new tool or a simple behaviour change, but we know the change starts at the working level. Our people know best; they use the processes on a daily basis, and if we can eliminate their pet peeves and improve their experiences, we keep our employees happy and improve our efficiency.”

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