A visit to the Cirrus factory in Duluth in mid-April was more than just a tour of its facilities and processes. It was an opportunity to see and hear how the company has faced evolving challenges and continues to build on its core values of technical excellence.
In 2017, when Cirrus opened its Vision Center at the McGee Tyson Airport (KTYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee, all deliveries of their new SR2X (SR20/SR22) piston planes and their SF Jet (Vision Jet) shifted from the manufacturing facilities in Duluth, Minnesota. The intent was for the Vision Center to be the premier centralized location for the entire Cirrus customer experience. The thought was that customers should receive the highest quality training, service and support in a climate-friendly place. Just saying “Knoxville” and “Cirrus” together has become synonymous with dramatic and ultra-cool deliveries of new aircraft to their eager buyers. The customer-centric focus in Knoxville has been outstanding; as a result, the stream of customers who once took tours of the Cirrus facilities in Duluth has significantly dropped.
“We miss seeing the customers here,” said Jim Alman, vice president of Engineering at Cirrus in Duluth. “If they can, we encourage our customers to come and see how the SRs and SFs come together; it’s a fascinating process.”
So, what does it look like behind the scenes at Cirrus? One of the first things you notice is the cleanliness of each assembly station and the general quiet everywhere. Inside the massive factory is a coordinated orchestration of activity; team members are huddled over and inside airplanes in various stages of completion as they move from station to station. Overhead signage throughout the plant reminds everyone that the company’s laser focus is on quality and safety.
Long before a ferry pilot takes a new airplane to Knoxville for delivery, the birth of a new Cirrus begins at the company’s composite facility in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Twice daily shipments arrive in Duluth from Grand Forks carrying portions of the SR2X fiberglass composite airframe and the SF Jet’s carbon fiber passenger cabin section. The SR2X airframes, which are glossy and smooth, arrive in two vertical halves. The halves or “fuselage skins” must first undergo a media-abrading process to prepare the composite surface before bonding occurs. Once the bonding agent or epoxy paste is applied and the airframe clamped together with the precise amount of force, it is placed in a giant air-circulating oven to bake and cure. This step is one of the longest to complete in production. The SF Jets process differs as the carbon fiber cabin comes in a one-piece closed shell from Grand Forks, and only the tail and nose sections are bonded in Duluth.
Once the fuselage has cured, each plane enters the queue to begin the build. Human hands complete all the work on each SR2X and SF Jet except for one robot used for the precision drilling of holes in the SF Jet. The assembly line begins in the Console Assembly area for the SR2X, where technicians place wire holder clips in strategic locations within the fused fuselage. The clips help technicians throughout the assembly process to more easily identify the precise location for positioning the necessary wiring and tubing. The heavy-duty Kevlar harness straps for the CAPS system are installed early in the process, with the rocketry installed when the airplanes are nearly complete. The SF Jets undergo their unique assembly in a separate part of the building.
The next step for both airplane types, as they move via huge rolling carts, is on to the wing assembly area. Here, the unpainted skeleton now begins to resemble an airplane. The aircraft is coated with a primer and sent to the paint and finishing center, housed in a cavernous building across the street from the production line. After the first coat of paint is applied, according to the color scheme chosen by the customer, the plane returns to the assembly building, where the remainder of the interior components, avionics and engine are installed. The avionics console is pre-assembled in a separate building and, like the engine, is lowered into the airplane using pullies and chains from above. The SR2X assembly usually takes about five hours at each station, while the SF Jet line takes about a day and a half between moves because of the size and increased complexity of the work involved.
With orders for each platform now out almost two years or more, facility expansion, workflow optimization and increased available man-hours are all needed to meet demand. Many areas work five to seven days a week, with some on a three-shift per day schedule. Because the painting process is so timeconsuming, Cirrus added a 15,000-foot expansion to the existing 65,000-squarefoot paint facility within the last few years, and scheduled work continues there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
According to Dan Ryan, a pilot who has been with Cirrus for 25 years and is the manager of production flight testing, “Each airplane coming off the line usually has four test flights. During those flights, the engine and control surfaces, as well as all the safety and avionic features, undergo rigorous testing to determine if they meet Cirrus’ high standards. Only then do the aircraft head to Knoxville for their eventual owners.”
To make that happen, Kaitlin Slette, fleet logistics coordinator, is tasked with monitoring the airplane’s progression along the line, repositioning new aircraft and ferry pilots back and forth to Knoxville.
Cirrus has evolved from its roots in 1984 as an entrepreneurial startup by Alan and Dale Klapmeier into the perennial leader in advanced personal aviation, with its CAPS whole-airplane parachute recovery system and emphasis on safety.
“Our company’s philosophy is simple,” said Pat Waddick, president of Innovation and Operations, who has been with Cirrus for 35 years. “Treat employees like family, which can then translate into our company’s culture. We call it the Cirrus Life Experience. We want our employees to understand that our products enable people to do things differently in their life, whether personally or for business. It is one reason we invest so heavily in our employee flying clubs in all our locations. If our employees want to learn to fly or even experience it a bit, we make that available to them. This ultimately gives them purpose and understanding of what we do.”
In the last five years, particularly postCOVID, there has been a massive uptick in interest in general aviation as consumers rail against the complexities and inconveniences of commercial air travel.
“The healthier market,” noted Waddick, “is fantastic, but it also made us realize that we needed to update our business infrastructure from what it had been. We needed to take advantage of new opportunities beyond lean principles in organizing our production system. That’s why we invested a great deal of time and energy into our information technology. We initially introduced our Manufacturing Execution System (MES), which can electronically track all operations, traceability of information and part numbers with the Vision Jet. This system has now been expanded into the SR2X line as well. It is not only good for the integrity of the data but also for our team members, who create value by assembling and fabricating these airplanes. All of this is coming together now.”
With a changing economy and a limited resident workforce of experienced aircraft technicians in Grand Forks and Duluth, Waddick explained the “Cirrus Operating System,” another new initiative in the company.
“We can hire team members with basic skill sets, teach them exactly what they need to know and enable them to build high-quality airplanes. It is a way for Cirrus to open pathways for people to have a career. For example, one of our corporate operations jet pilots worked in the paint center just a few years ago. With ambition and skills, our employees can move anywhere in the company.”
According to Waddick, Cirrus is also upgrading outdated procedures by implementing another facet of the Cirrus Operating System.
“You need a lot of information when you build an airplane,” he said, “we want our technicians to have all the information they need at their workstations so that everything is organized and standardized. They also need a lot of support when issues come up. We don’t want them to stop and have to find someone to help them. So, we installed a notification system whereby the support team is easily alerted whenever needed for problem-solving and issue resolution.”
Beyond building high-quality aircraft, Cirrus has long strived to have excellent customer relations. Despite those intentions, Waddick noted, supply chain and workforce challenges have been issues for all manufacturers and businesses post-COVID. He sadly noted that because of these factors, Cirrus did disappoint customers last year with delayed delivery dates. Even though it was difficult, he emphasized that when an airplane leaves the line, everything must check out correctly.
That philosophy was tested when a service bulletin from Continental Aerospace Technologies came out in February about a potential problem with an engine component installed on certain SR22s and SR22Ts. Cirrus took a proactive approach and grounded flight test operations until the problem could be investigated.
“The collaboration with Continental was outstanding,” Waddick said, “everyone’s focus was entirely on safety. We wanted to ensure that we knew what we were looking at and why we were looking for it. We had 44 aircraft on-site with engines in the production process that grounded to a halt. We were removing cylinders and doing inspections, looking at snap rings and counterweights. We did find one engine that had the condition. We hoped we would find none, but that is precisely why we do these things. It is another set of eyes in the process. We want everything to be how it is supposed to be, confirming our commitment to the integrity of our products and systems.”
Do the aircraft seem larger than life? Maybe. That may be because the company designs its products around what pilots want and what partners need to feel comfortable. That commitment drives consumer interest, which is why they have sold over 9,000 Cirrus aircraft worldwide and why we were interested in touring the factory.
While at the factory, we were pleasantly surprised and excited to see our own airplane on the flightline. As it turned out, it had just been released from the production side for flight testing on the day we were in Duluth touring the factory. After letting us stand next to the plane and peek inside, pilot Dan Ryan whispered that he would probably be taking the airplane up for its first test flight. In what could only be described as serendipity, we did indeed see Dan taking off in our airplane as we glanced out the conference room window during our conversation with Pat Waddick. The Cirrus life has started for us, just as it has for so many others, and will for many more in the future.
Sixty-minute tours at the Duluth manufacturing facility are available every Wednesday at 1 p.m. and must be scheduled in advance.