How Aerojet Rocketdyne utilise operational excellence to provide market-leading manufacturing in the aerospace and defense industries

|May 19|magazine20 min read

For over 70 years, Aerojet Rocketdyne has delivered innovative solutions to aerospace and defense market customers all over the world. The company provides propulsion and energetics technologies to space, missile defense, strategic, tactical missile and armaments customers but the company lives and dies by a simple mission: to build a ‘brighter future for the next generations of youth and scientists and leaders and civilians…everywhere who look to new frontiers and advances in global technologies’.

As technology continues to disrupt and redefine industries and markets all over the world, a leading company like US-based Aerojet Rocketdyne must evolve with this changing landscape and this is something that Alan Avakian, Chief Technology Officer, understands. “Technology continues to leapfrog and the industry has changed a lot in the past decade,” he says. “With Aerojet Rocketdyne today, I am managing a group of outsourcing partners that provide IT services to our company. I look at strategy and technology development and then working how do we bring those technologies to the operation side of things so that we can start implementing those things and adding business value to our internal customers.”

Working with customers across a market as delicate as the defence and aerospace industries, where information and data is key, there is one conversation surrounding technology that has significantly grown and continues to grow even today.

“There’s definitely a major focus on cybersecurity, given the number of high-level security breaches that have happened over recent years across the globe,” says Avakian. “Right now, it’s all about how do we protect our company assets, our information and making sure it is maintained for competitive advantages. Then we look at how do we enable those critical business capabilities where we can focus in on digitization and retire high-risk legacy systems and look towards creating intelligence out of that information.”

This, he feels, is where we see an industry-wide turn towards robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning as well as robotic process automation that helps companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne develop new opportunities and new markets that didn’t exist before. Avakian points to Uber as an example to look to. “Nobody dreamed up Uber five years ago but here it is today and it’s a multi-billion-dollar company,” he says. “That’s what AI and robotic machine learning are providing to us, creating new markets for companies that don’t even exist yet.”

The challenge then for Aerojet Rocketdyne as it moves into new markets and explores new opportunities through technology and innovation becomes one of catering to new and evolving customers. The customer of today requires cost-effectiveness without compromising on quality. Avakian recognizes that the company must be able to provide its market leading best practices, all the while doing so in a cost-effective way and maintaining a competitive advantage. When working with NASA to put satellites into orbit and providing missiles and defense systems in place to protect the country, the challenge is accelerated. “Our customers are looking for that innovative solution that provides those technologies or competitive edges but also does it from an affordable perspective where increased competition is encouraged to get the best value proposition,” he says.

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“So whenever I'm thinking of those new things that are innovative, cutting-edge, I'm always thinking about how can we do it in such a way that it is secure and meets our customers’ requirements, but also enables the business so that we can start accelerating things and getting to a point where we're innovating and being able to provide things as a service model versus building it in as kind of an on-premise type of solutions and things like that.”

A testament to this understanding, Aerojet Rocketdyne has invested in the construction of an Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Huntsville, Alabama. This new facility represents complete technology enablement through the use of information as the company prototyped a number of digital factory initiatives that utilize information technology through automation, robotics and even 3D printing equipment. “This facility and the innovation we are fostering there provides us with a competitive edge,” says Avakian. “We’re taking it to the next level where we implement more automation and it provides us with more information and creates markets that we didn’t have before.”

“What IT does is brings it all together where our manufacturing execution system, our product lifecycle management system, our ERP system, and our business intelligence systems all work together to bring that information to our fingertips and we can start making better decisions based on that information.”

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Building and operating an advanced manufacturing facility that places Aerojet Rocketdyne at the cutting-edge of technology and innovation, but as Avakian noted, the modern customer demands not only innovation but cost-effectiveness. To that end, as Aerojet Rocketdyne moves into new markets and develops new technologies it must continuously assess its own capabilities to do so. One such way in which the company is doing this is through its competitive improvement program. The goal of this program is a simple one, to ensure thats its products are more affordable across the business enterprise and bring that value back to its customers. The advanced manufacturing facility is but one part of this program as Aerojet Rocketdyne chose to consolidate its footprint, the next step is one of rationalization. “When we finished the advanced manufacturing facility in Huntsville, that really puts it into the competitive improvement as a whole but we're going to continue to rationalize things across the entire enterprise,” says Avakian. “It’s about our product affordability going back to our customers and then we're also along with that, reducing our administrative and overhead cost. In order to bring value back to our customers it’s about making sure we're using everything that we can from an efficient and effective perspective.”

A continuous improvement program is all well and good, but much like the information provided through automation and machine learning, Aerojet Rocketdyne must extract the value from this information in order to ensure that it is achieving what it set out to achieve. To this end, Aerojet Rocketdyne uses service level agreements, metrics, key performance and critical performance indicators as a means of measuring the company against its strategy and architecture. “What does ‘done’ look like in our world? We are constantly figuring out how do we get there and being able to measure ourselves across that journey,” says Avakian.

“Using data to get there is very much something that's ingrained in our company so that we can make sure that we're making objective, quantifiable measurements to be able to evaluate if we did achieve what we were trying to achieve in the beginning.”

In the technology space, the measurement of success is crucial both internally and externally and with technology and innovation evolving at an increasing rate, communication proves key. Avakian is a firm believer in proof of concepts and providing real, tangible examples of the return on investment (ROI) that technology can bring. He feels that in today’s digital age, being able to do so is more prevalent than ever before because software as a service (SaaS) capabilities companies are able to “spin up environments and applications with the snap of a finger and a click of a mouse.”

“Now we can bring technology to our customers that much more quickly, they can touch it and feel it and then that provides them with the confidence that we can invest in it and provide that to the masses,” he says. “That's how I think it's definitely changed the value proposition and being able to get something to the market that much more quickly than we were in years past.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been a market leading innovator for more than 70 years and as technology has continued to define and redefine the market landscape, it shows no sign of slowing down. Aerojet, through sound investment in its manufacturing facility as well as its continuous improvement program, has readied itself to cement its market-leading position as it embraces the future of technology and innovation. Avakian recognizes this and points to information as being the true enabler of technology, both today and tomorrow. “We're at a very pivotal point within the world right now where the environment is changing rapidly. It's different from what it was in years past and information appears to be king. So, it's how do we use that information to our advantage and capitalize on it going forward?” he says.

“Staying in front of it will provide you with the ability to enable competitive advantages and things of that nature, and as we’ve successfully begun to do here at Aerojet, share that information to be able to collaborate and get to these new things that weren't even possible before.”

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