Understanding what’s happening at Icon Aircraft today demands a quick look at continuous quality improvement, a culture-driven process widely used in automobile manufacturing to help companies manage an unwieldy production process often caused by rising costs, poor planning or a lack of innovation. But continuous improvement isn’t simply about cost cutting. It’s also about refining the quality of the finished product. In order to succeed, however, a good CI system requires the buy-in of every company employee. Toyota created one of the most well-known versions, which they called TPS for Toyota Production System.
The classic CI system employs a feedback loop to track every production element required to create a product, the cost of each individual part, the number of hours of labor, and most important, the “why” behind every single action. Waste, in either time or materials, is not simply tossed in a corner trash can. These byproducts are examined closely to understand the reason behind the waste—was the part built incorrectly, did the cost of materials unexpectedly increase, or was the person on the line not adequately trained in some element?
All the data is fed back to the managerial team to guide them in eliminating wasted time and materials to improve the overall efficiency of the manufacturing process. The automobile industry learned the hard way that increasing the cost of creating a simple part such as battery bracket by just a few pennies can create manufacturing chaos.
Thomas Wieners brought years of manufacturing experience to Icon Aircraft in 2015 when he became the company’s vice president of manufacturing. He’d honed his skills at automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi, as well as engine builder Rotax. By June 2018, he was the company’s chief operating officer and president, with total responsibility for every aspect of building the light-sport A5.
A devotee of continuous-improvement manufacturing, Wieners understood early that quality absolutely was job number one if the niche A5 was to have any chance at succeeding in an already-crowded world of light-sport airplanes. If a part on the assembly line didn’t fit within tolerances, everyone in the company needed to know why to prevent the same problem from recurring.
Wieners faced enormous challenges when he arrived at Icon, not the least of which were the criticisms of the A5 some within the industry were only too happy to share—starting with the fact that the airplane’s a slowpoke at 95 knots with two people on board. Also, when two people climb aboard, the A5′s useful load drops precipitously with just enough room for about three hours of fuel and little else. And you can’t fly an A5 in the clouds.
Then there’s the Icon’s $359,000 price that some see as an affront to the light-sport design concept originally meant to deliver a solid yet affordable airplane. The price just recently declined from an even loftier $389,000, a figure boosted by a quarter-million dollars from the $139,000 price first announced in 2008. Furthermore, the A5′s not great in a high wind, with a demonstrated crosswind component of just 12 knots. One benefit: The A5 is spin-resistant—not spin-proof—thanks to the prominent wing cuff about halfway along the leading edge. Even being spin-resistant hasn’t prevented a few pilots from pranging their A5s in a number of fatal high-profile accidents. After a couple recent accidents, the harshest critics said production should have been halted.
Despite these drawbacks, the light-sport A5′s eye-catching, sports-car-like charm had already captured the attention of thousands of potential buyers. Created by an Icon design team led by Klaus Tritschler, following his 16 years at European auto giant BMW, the A5 truly stands out because Tritschler focused from the beginning on “bringing a high level of design quality to every element of the aircraft.”
What the company didn’t have when Wieners arrived was a process to efficiently build the design. “The only guide was a booklet of engineering drawings,” he said. “There were no work instructions, no visual aids, no sequence of events, no tooling or real process description. This all needed to be made up.” At the beginning, the company didn’t have the industrial and manufacturing engineering expertise or support in-house.
Engineers are terrific for building one airplane, Wieners said, but “I didn’t want engineering involved in building a series of airplanes. I think they underestimated how complicated it was going to be to build the A5 if you’re solely focused on an airplane’s flight characteristics and aesthetics.” He also realized early on that the company couldn’t afford to redesign the airplane in order to make it easier to manufacture. “I totally underestimated how difficult it was going to be to bring this prototype into serial production. The whole supplier relationship was nonexistent, except for some prototype suppliers, some of which developed into real suppliers. But we needed contracts with suppliers and price-negotiated commercial agreements with those suppliers.” The only solution was to create a quality manufacturing system that would build the A5 the company already had.
That took time. Still, some current owners are quick to point to the quality of their airplanes and Icon’s support of even the early serial numbers. Many said they couldn’t imagine owning anything else, despite the airplane’s perceived shortcomings. While the airplane’s potential weaknesses were always front and center to Wieners, he knew that neither the criticisms nor the accolades would matter much if he couldn’t better organize the helter-skelter system of building the A5; Icon employees were building great airplanes, but it was simply taking them much too long.
Consider the carbon-fiber parts—the heart of the A5. Early on, the company lacked the in-house expertise to create those parts and outsourced the needed work to Cirrus. But the quality of the products was not up to the standard Wieners expected. By early 2016, Icon decided to bring carbon-fiber manufacturing in-house. That plan evolved into a 300,000-square-foot facility in Tijuana, Mexico, that opened the following year among a cluster of other brands well-known in the United States, such as Boeing, Bose and Medtronic. There’s an ample local labor force in the Tijuana area that Icon has spent time and money to train. “I want Icon to be an employer of choice,” Wieners said. “It takes three to six months to train an employee through the entire process of building an A5—although most tend to specialize in one or two areas based on their skill sets. I want them to be challenged, not simply standing around doing repetitive work.” Employees can watch training videos and practice what they’ve learned on mock projects while they work with a mentor to hone their skills. True to its holistic continuous-quality-improvement roots, Icon offers employees items such as a free hot lunch daily, as well as no-cost transportation to and from central locations in Tijuana. A finished A5 sits prominently on the factory floor, so each and every employee can see where their efforts fit into the finished product.
Wieners said the expenditure on employees has worked out well—though, at first, the building process was not remotely efficient and “included plenty of double-checking and a lot of unorganized work, which, of course, is more expensive. The work process wasn’t smooth; there was no rhythm. We decided to cut labor hours by getting the quality right the first time.” He said one indicator that the CI efforts were beginning to work appeared as the defects per unit began to decline.
“By bringing composite fabrication in-house, Icon has been able to ensure that components meet strict quality and cost standards while also allowing us to more rapidly implement changes as we continue to improve our process,” Icon spokesman Brian Manning said in late March 2020. “As a result, we have improved the efficiency of the manufacturing process and supply chain. Our capacity, tooling, precision equipment, and highly skilled and trained technical team rival the top carbon manufacturers in the world.” The turnaround on carbon-fiber manufacturing in Tijuana “has been featured in numerous industry and aviation publications over the past year. We’re actively considering partners interested in leveraging our resources and expertise for contract manufacturing across composites, assembly and engineering services.”
While no company has yet signed on to let Icon manufacture their composites, it highlights the manufacturing changes from just a few years ago. Manning said: “We’ve started to realize efficiencies in our manufacturing process and recently elected to shift most of the final-assembly process to our manufacturing facility in Tijuana. We are happy to see our decadelong investment in manufacturing start to pay off so we can pass those savings on to new owners.” That savings registered directly into the A5′s price reduction from $389,000 to $359,000 for one with standard equipment.
Building Airplanes Is Hard Work
No matter the manufacturer, history has proved that building airplanes is a process littered with potholes, including the machinery and processes needed to create the product, training employees, dealing with regulators, and maintaining a steady flow of customers to the front door, eager to take home the finished product. Icon has had more than its share of problems here too—some related to cash flow, some to bad public relations generated by the aforementioned accidents in the A5. In spring 2016, Icon experienced a cash shortfall, which they managed to overcome.
Other hurdles appeared, however. In August 2019, the company announced a reduction in head count—decreasing the employee base from nearly 650 to about 400 and then down to 200—as part of a revised business plan focused on improved operational efficiency. The move “reduced the cost structure of the airplane across the organization and right-sized the business for current Icon A5 demand,” according to a company press release. Wieners later said: “The company had been structured for higher-volume production, but after producing more than 100 aircraft, we now have a very good understanding of costs. New and existing owners will continue to receive a first-class ownership experience with personalized, one-on-one relationships. Our adventure-seeking owners love that the A5 delivers an unparalleled flying experience.”
Icon had a dozen or so airframes in progress when I visited the company’s Tijuana composite center and later the Vacaville, California, headquarters and delivery center in September 2019. There were another six to eight A5s on the ground in Vacaville to serve the flight training side of the company. Icon extended the invitation not to simply tour the company’s facilities but to watch its employees create a finished A5.
Upon entering the Tijuana facility, I was immediately impressed with its cleanliness. There wasn’t so much as a stray coffee cup or can of pop anywhere. Inside the plant, the temperature is held at a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Even before a formal tour, the progression was clear of how a roll of carbon fiber on the building’s east side and across the well-organized shop floor moved along to the point where the fuselage halves were mated—as well as the wings, that big T-tail, the sea wings, interior, engine and more.
A major component is the A5′s main wing spar, some 120 carbon-fiber plies thick, each laser-guided for placement before the entire spar is vacuum-bagged to begin the curing process. It then spends an additional six hours at 260 degrees F in one of the company’s two pressurized autoclave machines that creates a spar as hard as steel but much lighter.
Icon said technicians use iPads that display detailed graphics for each of the 190 different operations necessary to create an A5—a process that consumes about 500 hours of labor for each airplane, down from 700 hours not long ago. The plant uses virtual parts tracking each time the tiniest part is pulled from stock. The system subtracts each part from inventory to ensure no one runs short. Tijuana is also the quietest manufacturing facility I’ve ever been in, partly because the company is building between only three and four aircraft per month. Wieners said his goal is a healthy backlog with a two- to four-month delivery window for a finished airplane.
Once a completed airplane rolls off the line, it’s shipped to the Vacaville delivery center, where another team of Icon employees perform a detailed condition inspection prior to the customer accepting delivery. That inspection begins with a close look at every spot on the airframe to be sure no cosmetic details were missed, such as stains on a seat. The delivery team rechecks the accuracy of every flight instrument and warning light, and ensures that no aircraft leaves Vacaville without all of the latest updates—such as the new muffler system Icon retrofitted to the fleet not long ago. Finally, the aircraft is flown through an intensive series of maneuvers to ensure customers receive exactly what they paid for.
Speaking to the attractiveness of the finished product, Wieners said: “I truly believe we have an opportunity to not only disrupt an industry but also change peoples’ lives, enabling them to do things that they previously only dreamed about. Our entire team is determined. We have the tools and capabilities to be successful, and we will continue to build out the organization with strong talent across all levels. We want customers to realize [once they climb into the cockpit] that this looks like their car. We’re after people who can appreciate an airplane that’s not technically overwhelming.”
In another custom touch, pilots can use the trailer that Icon now builds in Tijuana to bring home their A5 after a day of fun at the airport or lake. Wieners admits that the A5, while standing out from the crowd, is still just one of many LSAs being offered for sale in the US. That’s why the company is after customers in search of a fresh lifestyle experience, rather than only established pilots.
A Dose of Reality
As Wieners knows well, “creating a new category is challenging.” But Icon seems more than up to the challenge. He said: “In the beginning, when there was a higher demand [for aircraft], our production capacity couldn’t deliver, and people were calling and waiting. Now, I can produce way more airplanes, and yet, I’m always surprised at the number of people I meet who say: ‘Yes, I like the A5. Let me know when you’re in production.’ I have to tell them we’ve already built 100 airplanes. It’s mind-blowing to me that people don’t know more about us.”
But he’s also realistic. “While not giving up on driving for higher volumes, we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we’re going to sell thousands of airplanes per year. I don’t think so. But I think we can still sell many aircraft if we accept this moment of truth, if we accept this reality check, and are courageous enough to make the right call, which I think is our managerial responsibility. Then I think this company, this brand, this product has enough to forge a solid path forward.” As a testament to Icon’s audacity, Wieners asked if I knew why so many of the initial run of A5s delivered came with a registration number that ended in “BA.” He smiled and said that stands for “badass.”
With so many of the nation’s airshows in the first half of 2020 having fallen victim to the COVID-19 virus, Icon’s marketing people clearly have their work cut out for them—especially because Wieners believes that “airplanes sell airplanes,” emphasizing the need for more people to see an A5 up close. He said the company is exploring cooperative marketing efforts with automobile companies such as Mercedes and Tesla. If Icon should falter, however, it won’t be because of the quality of the aircraft’s fit and finish.
This story appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Flying Magazine