Future of the Piston Aircraft Engine, Part 1: A Visit to TCM (Teledyne Continental Motors)

We expected our recent visit to the Teledyne Continental Motors factory in Mobile to be depressing, but we came away feeling surprisingly upbeat about the future of TCM.


Will the piston engines of tomorrow incorporate new technologyof will they just be more of the same? Do piston aircraft engineseven have a future? To answer these questions, we’ve been touringthe country talking to as many engine experts as we could find.This is the second article in a periodic series on the currentstate and future of the engine business. The second article in this seriesrecounts our visit to Textron-Lycoming and our revealing one-on-one interview with Lycoming’s CEO.


The visit that almost wasn’t

When we first called TCM’s public relations office last winterto arrange a plant tour and management interview, it became quicklyobvious that the company wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea.It took nearly six months of dogged persistence before TCM agreedto our visit in mid-May. Even then, we were told that we wouldnot be permitted to take photos or use tape recorders, and thatmanagement interviews would be strictly "off the record."

Fortunately, we were able to arrange a breakfast meeting withTCM president Brian Lewis and persuade him that we weren’t thereto do a hatchet job on his company. Lewis reluctantly but graciouslyrelaxed most of the restrictions originally placed on us. Duringthe next day and a half, we talked at length with Lewis and allof the other top TCM managers, and saw as many parts of the manufacturingoperation as time allowed.

To be honest, we arrived in Mobile with some preconceived notionsabout what we would find there. We’d been told horror storiesabout quality assurance problems at TCM. We’d heard rumors thatTeledyne was on the brink of shutting down TCM and getting outof the piston aircraft engine business. And TCM’s reluctance tolet us visit made us suspicious about just what they were tryingto hide.

Given this background, we were pleasantly surprised by much thatwe saw and heard at TCM.

TCM’s rollercoaster ride

Continental has been building piston aircraft engines for 65 years.In 1930 Continental introduced the A40, a 38horsepower 4cylinderhorizontally-opposed air-cooled engine used in the Piper Cub andTaylorcraft. The A40 was the first of a long series of Aseriesengines that culminated in the A225 engines that powered earlyBeech Bonanzas in the late 1940s. The A40 evolved into the O200and O300 engines used in the Cessna 150 and 172. The A-225 wasthe progenitor of today’s big-bore 470, 520, and 550 Continentals.

Continental’s original factory was in Ohio. The company expandedinto its current Alabama location starting in 1966 when the AirForce decided to close down Brookley AFB (now Mobile DowntownAirport) and Continental was able to lease the old hangars andbuildings for a song. In 1969, Continental Motors Corporationwas acquired by Teledyne, a diversified conglomerate with operationsranging from weapons and aerospace to shower heads and Water-Piks.Teledyne acquired additional space at Brookley and relocated allTCM operations to Mobile.

TCM prospered during the heyday of general aviation in the 1970s.By 1979, the firm was turning out more than 10,000 engines a year,mostly new engines for Cessna, Beech, and other OEM customers.The TCM workforce reached 950 people, and the company expendedinto virtually every available building at the Brookley site.

Then disaster struck. In the early 80s, the general aviation industryexperienced a devastating downturn. New piston aircraft productionvirtually ceased. Cessna (TCM’s biggest customer) shut down pistonproduction altogether, and other manufacturers slowed to an insignificanttrickle. Virtually overnight, the market for new TCM engines vanished.

The 1980s was a traumatic decade for TCM. The company was forcedto downsize drastically, and to transform itself from a manufacturerof new engines into a supplier of parts and rebuilt engines tothe aftermarket. In essence, TCM became a giant overhaul shop

The trauma was compounded in 1989 when TCM’s management and laborunion reached an impasse in contract, resulting in a long andbitter strike that crippled TCM’s production. One legacy of thestrike was a customer perception of poor quality control thatpersists to this day.

In the aftermath of the strike, Teledyne brought in a new TCMchief executive, Brian Lewis, and a new top management team taskedwith repairing the company’s relationship with its workforce,solving the quality problems, and re-engineering the company inresponse to TCM’s different and downsized market. The companywas reorganized into business units, manufacturing cells, andquality circles reminiscent of a Japanese car company.

TCM’s new realities

Today, TCM is down to about 600 employees, and produces about3,600 engines a year. Only about 15% of those are new OEM engines.The remaining 85% are remanufactured engines for the aftermarket.These engines represent about half of TCM’s revenues; the otherhalf of the business is in selling replacement parts to overhaulshops and other field maintenance facilities.

Brian Lewis is convinced that TCM’s worst years are behind it.He sees positive signs for the first time in fifteen years, andanticipates slow but solid growth for some years to come. WithCessna resuming piston aircraft production, Piper expected toexit bankruptcy soon, and the kitplane business growing rapidly,Lewis expects the market for new OEM engines to revive.

TCM’s future OEM business won’t come from Cessna, who stated thatengines for its new piston production would be 100% Lycomings.Since Cessna and Lycoming are both divisions of Textron (another1960s-vintage conglomerate), Cessna’s decision came as no bigsurprise. Lewis’s comment: "we’re disappointed that Textronmade its decision along corporate lines."

Piper is a different story. TCM is the lead member of a creditorgroup that is attempting to acquire Piper and bring it out ofChapter 11. If the court approves the buyout plan, TCM will becomethe largest shareholder of the new Piper, and would presumablybecome Piper’s primary engine supplier.

TCM’s other OEM customers include Beech, Mooney, and several overseasmanufacturers. In addition, TCM is the dominant engine supplierfor the high-performance kitplane market (Lancair IV, QuestairVenture, etc.), which TCM expects to become an increasingly importantsegment of the OEM market.

Although he doesn’t see the OEM business returning to the headylevels of 1979, Lewis thinks that TCM’s business might reach a50-50 ratio of new vs. reman engines by the end of the decadeif all goes well.

Engineering innovation

For decades, Continental and Lycoming have displayed very differentattitudes toward innovation. Lycoming spends relatively littleon R&D, and tends to make engineering changes very rarelyand only when absolutely necessary. In contrast, Continental hasa much bigger R&D budget, and makes changes much more frequently.Take a side-by-side look at engine parts catalogs sometime: aTCM parts catalog is dominated by hundreds of change pages, whilea Lycoming parts catalog has hardly changed in years.

Continental has pioneered many important engineering innovationslike fuel injection and turbocharging. But TCM’s predispositiontoward innovation has been a two-edged sword. Some of their "improvements"have not worked out well in the field (such as Nitralloy exhaustvalve guides and cast steel-belted pistons). And the company hasspent many millions on R&D programs that have not paid off.The innovative geared high-RPM Tiara engine that TCM developedthe ’70s appeared briefly on one agplane and then disappearedinto oblivion. TCM’s promising liquid-cooled "Voyager"engine developed in the ’80s has yet to surface except in a relativehandful of RAM-converted Cessna 414As.

Nevertheless, TCM’s enthusiasm for R&D seems undiminished.Brian Lewis made it clear that he considers innovation to be akey factor in providing tomorrow’s OEMs and converters a reasonto choose TCM rather than Lycoming. TCM intends to keep and enhanceits reputation as the most innovative company in the piston enginemarket.

For example, TCM expects to start shipping engines using the newSlick LASAR electronic ignition system as soon as Unison can getFAA certification. Also, TCM holds an STC to install liquid-cooledIO-550 engine in the Beech Bonanza, and is trying to get it tomarket via a licensing arrangement with a (yet unnamed) airframeconverter.

We talked at length with TCM’s engineering chief, John Barton,about what the TCM engines of tomorrow would look like. Barton’sroadmap includes lots of small product improvements, several newbut evolutionary engines, and a major thrust to incorporate electronicsinto TCM engines.

Barton showed us a number of new product improvements in his engineeringlab. We saw a new line of rocker cover and accessory gaskets thathave an integral raised rubber-like bead to improve sealing andeliminate pesky oil leaks. We examined a new O200 cylinder assemblythat incorporated dozens of significant improvements. And we lookedat a brand new clutchless starter that TCM is introducing to replacethe old and failure-prone O200 starter.

Future engineering direction

Barton’s engineers are working on several new engines to meetspecific needs. TCM is developing a pair of new high-power gearedengines, a normally aspirated GIO-550 and a turbocharged GTSIO-550;the turbocharged model will be rated at nearly 500 hp. At theopposite end of the horsepower scale, TCM is creating a new 125hp IO240 engine, basically a four-cylinder version of the currentIO360, to power trainers and medium-sized kitplanes. Finally,a lightweight 250 hp version of the IO-520 is in development,dubbed the IO-520-LW.

TCM engineers are focused on the increased application of electronicsto the piston aircraft engine, much as the auto industry did adecade ago. Expect to see this occur in small increments. Thefirst use of electronics will be variable-timing electronic ignition,most likely the Slick LASAR system. TCM is also working on anelectronic engine instrumentation package to replace the traditionalsteam gauges we now use.

Longer term, TCM is investigating an electronic fuel control unitthat would provide optimum mixture control. Ultimately, TCM’sgoal is a single power lever system that reduces pilot workloadwhile assuring optimum power and mixture settings.

Although TCM’s geared high-RPM Tiara engine was a commercial failure20 years ago and its liquid-cooled Voyager engine has yet to gainmuch acceptance, John Barton still believes that they were bothsteps in the right direction. His long-term vision of TCM’s pistonengine of the future (what he calls the "Advanced Core Engine")is a geared, high-RPM, finely-balanced, liquid-cooled engine withvariable-timing electronic ignition, electronic mixture control,electronic instrumentation, and a single power-lever control,capable of operating on low-octane unleaded fuel. There’s no targetdate for such an engine, but it gives a good indication of whereTCM engines are most likely headed.

Major retooling

Meantime, TCM is making major changes to their manufacturing operation.The company is investing big bucks to retire decades-old manually-operatedmachine tools and to replace it with state-of-the-art computerizednumerically-controlled (CNC) equipment.

The first portion of the factory to be retooled was the cylinderfabrication facility. Howard Atwood, TCM’s vice-president andgeneral manager of operations, took us through the cylinder shopand showed off his expensive goodies. Over the past three years,TCM has installed four new Mori Seiki CNC machines that cost $1.5million, and were able to retire almost 75 ancient manually-operatedmachines. The new cylinder shop is one-third the size it usedto be, requires substantially fewer workers, and has almost twicethe production capacity of the old facility.

Cylinders are now manufactured with greater consistency and lessdimensional variation than before. Most importantly, the retoolingallowed TCM to cut the price of new cylinder kits by 30% to 40%last year. (We discuss the new economics of cylinders in "The Jug Jungle.")

TCM’s modern Mori Seiki CNC machines are the same kind we sawwhen we visited the Dallas production facility where Superior’sMillennium cylinders are built. Such equipment was conspicuouslyabsent during our visits to Lycoming, however.

Next in line for retooling at TCM are the crankshaft and crankcaseproduction areas. New CNC machines will replace old tooling whereverit is advantageous to do so. Some of the old equipment will remain,because CNC isn’t always the best solution. For example, gang-boringcrankcase halves with custom-built boring jigs is both fasterand more reproducible than drilling holes sequentially with aCNC rig. Nevertheless, Atwood expects to achieve significant productivityincreases and cost savings when the crank and case cells are retooled.

Final assembly

When Atwood took us though the area where final assembly of enginesis performed, it was not quite what we expected. Most of the TCMfactory looks like a gigantic machine shop: huge, sprawling, dark,smelly, hot, with row after row of big metalworking machines.In contrast, final assembly is done in a separate room that isair conditioned, brilliantly lit, laboratory clean, and surprisinglysmall (perhaps 1,000 square feet). Every TCM engine is built inthis one little room.

Every engine has its own assembly dolly, its own parts cart, andits own serial-numbered assembly manual. These all move down theline together as engine assembly progresses. There is just oneassembly line that every engine traverses, whether new or reman.(This differs from Lycoming, where new and rebuilt engines arebuilt on separate parallel assembly lines.)

The assembly dollies allow the engines to be assembled with thecrankshaft horizontal. Pivots on the dolly permit the assemblerto turn the engine on its side or even upside-down for easy accessduring various assembly steps. (Lycoming uses a similar scheme.)In contrast, every field overhaul shop we’ve visited assemblesengines with the crankshaft vertical and supported by the propellerflange.

Because TCM builds such a wide variety of engine models and specnumbers, the assembly manual for each engine is customized foreach particular engine serial number. The manual contains hundredsof pages of computer printout, itemizing each individual assemblystep, detailed procedures, torque values, and so forth. TCM isin the process of digitizing their assembly drawings so that thecomputer can incorporate graphics into these manuals. We saw amixture of old-style (text only) and new-style (text plus graphics)manuals when we visited.

After final assembly is complete, each engine is wheeled to aninstrumented test cell where it goes through a test run that normallylasts 45 to 60 minutes. The test cells are old and low-tech, usingsteam-gauge instrumentation and manual logging of results. (TCMhas one high-tech computer-instrumented test cell that is usedby engineering.)

Production control

TCM has also created major new data processing systems to supportits manufacturing operation. Production and materials controlare now computerized with an order-driven scheduling system. RonCaton, TCM’s manager of production control, showed us how thenew system works. When an engine order is received, the computerinstantly allocates all necessary parts based on the proper bill-of-materialsfor that particular engine model and spec number. If any of therequired parts are in short supply, corrective action can be takenimmediately so that production is not impacted. If an urgent situationarises (such as an AOG order), the computer is smart enough torealloate parts from lower-priority orders.

Caton told us that this system proved invaluable during productioncrunch following the recent Chevron fuel contamination crisiswhen demand for reman engines and parts suddenly went ballistic.It was impossible for TCM to keep up with the unexpected ordersurge, but things would have been a whole lot worse if the newscheduling system hadn’t been in place. The computer allowed TCMto provide fairly accurate delivery time estimates to customersduring the Chevron crunch so that they knew how long their aircraftwould be down and could make alternate plans.

Questions about quality

Innovative engineering and efficient manufacturing may be welland good, but what customer care about more than anything elseis quality. Prior to our visit, we’d heard numerous stories aboutthe poor quality of the engines coming out of Mobile. So we satdown with Bill Thornbury, vice-president of quality assurance,and asked him to give us a detailed show-and-tell about TCM’sapproach to Q/A.

Thornbury started out with a highly technical presentation thatwas frankly over our heads: Cpk=2, 6-sigma, SPC analysis. Whenhe noticed our eyes starting to glaze, he graciously started overin plain english.

Although detailed inspection is the last line of defense againstout-of-spec parts, Thornbury explained that TCM’s emphasis ison monitoring and improving each manufacturing process so thatproblems can be caught and corrected long before out-of-spec partsstart appearing. Critical dimensions are logged and analyzed todetermine whether dimensional variations are random or whethera trend can be detected. Red flags go up any time variation exceedsone-half of the allowable inspection tolerances.

In support of this kind of analysis, TCM is now phasing in state-of-the-artmeasurement tools that we’d never seen anywhere else in our travels.Thornbury showed us electronic torque wrenches, micrometers, depthgauges, and surface roughness testers, all with digital outputsto permit direct computerized logging of measurements. The useof these fancy new instrumentation was particularly in evidencewhen we visited the cylinder cell. Special emphasis was givento certain critical measurements such as the roughness of cylindermicrofinish which TCM considers critical to proper break-in.

At the opposite end of the Q/A spectrum is engine audit inspections.One out of every 25 engines that comes out of final assembly andtest-cell run is pulled off the line and subjected to a completeteardown inspection. A long list of critical dimensions—Thornburycalled them "key characteristics"—are measured andlogged. The audit engine then goes back through final assemblyand gets another test-cell run. (Lycoming uses a similar procedure.)

No matter how thorough a company’s Q/A procedures are, sometimes"stuff happens." To deal with such problems when theyarise, TCM has created a "Product Integrity Council"which includes Atwood, Barton, Thornbury, and various other keymanagers. These folks meet to evaluate a quality problem and decidehow to deal it. What happened? Did it occur in-house or at a supplier?Have any defective parts or engines reached the field? Can weidentify precisely which serial numbers are affected? Is a servicebulletin or airworthiness directive required? Is priority notificationrequired? How can we ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

A basic ground rule of this Council is: if there’s any safetyissue involved, no matter how remote or improbable it might be,go public with it. As a result of this policy, TCM sometimes findsitself getting bad press when another company faced with the samesituation might have elected to say nothing.

Perception versus reality

We came away with the vivid impression that TCM is working bothharder and smarter to assure product quality and consistency thanwhat we saw at Lycoming, Superior, or any of the overhaul shopswe visited. So why does TCM have such a bad reputation for qualityin the field? Neither Thornbury nor anyone else at TCM could giveus an answer. But we have our own theories.

A piston aircraft engine has an average life of about ten yearsbefore it is majored or replaced. This means that an average owners’last contact with the factory was about five years ago. And fiveyears ago, TCM was in the throes of a labor dispute that severelydisrupted its manufacturing operations and had devastating impacton product quality.

Perception seems to lag years behind reality in this business.In this regard, it’s similar to what happened to the U.S. autoindustry. More than a decade ago, Detroit developed a reputationfor building terrible cars, and droves of Americans started buyingToyotas and BMWs instead of Chevys and Dodges. The U.S. automakersredesigned their cars, updated their tooling, overhauled theirQ/A procedures, and started to build excellent cars that wereevery bit as good as what the Germans and Japanese were making.But it took many years before the stigma associated with poorquality American cars was erased from the mind of the consumer.We suspect that the same phenomenon is partly responsible forthe perception of poor TCM quality.

Also, it is an irony of today’s market that TCM’s principal customers(authorized distributors of TCM reman engines) are also TCM’sprincipal competitors (overhaul shops). Consequently, there’sa love-hate relationship between TCM and many of its distributors.Since many of them make more profit selling an overhaul than theydo selling a factory reman, they have a vested interest in makingTCM remans look bad. These firms used to compete with TCM on thebasis of price, but with today’s aggresively-priced remans thisis no longer possible. A number of high-profile shops are quiteovert in marketing their overhauled engines as better than whatthe factory turns out. (Capehart, RAM, and Victor come to mind.)And frankly, those shops are doing a far better job at tellingtheir story than the factory is. We can’t help but conclude thatthis is a factor in perpetuating the perception of inferior qualityfrom TCM.

TCM seems to have come light years from the bad old days of ’89and ’90. Contrary to widespread perception, TCM appears to beworking harder on product quality than anyone else in the industry.Based on what we saw in Mobile, we’d feel just fine about buyinga TCM factory reman.

Customer service

The last department we visited at TCM was customer service. Theseare the folks that process orders, deal with warranty claims,and provide field support. We spoke with Tim Archer, directorof sales and service, and with several of Archer’s managers.

TCM is in the midst of a major reorganization of its customerservice department that at last recognizes the realities of today’smarket. Prior to the Great Downturn, the word "customer"in the TCM lexicon was defined as "airframe manufacturer."Today, a miniscule fraction of TCM’s product goes to OEMs. Consequently, Archer has been tasked with re-inventing his department so thatit serves the customers of today: the aircraft converter, thedistributor, the FBO, and aircraft owner. In our judgement, thischange is very welcome and about a decade overdue.

Archer is a big believer in computers, and has invested heavilyin automation of his department. Last year, he deployed TCM-NET—aPC-based system providing 24-hour on-line dial-up access to TCM’sdistributor network. The system allows distributors to place andtrack orders for engines and parts, to submit and track warrantyclaims, and to obtain price and availability information.

TCM-NET is presently being used by 70% of TCM’s distributors,and Archer expects the number to reach 99% by year-end. The systemhas eliminated most of the access problems associated with time-zonedifferences, and has produced a tremendous savings in paperwork,particularly for overseas distributors. About 30% of TCM’s businessis overseas, but that business involves vastly more paperworkthan does domestic business. Archer used to have four full-timepeople preparing export documentation. With the advent of TCM-NET,export documentation is now handled by one person working half-time.Overall, TCM’s customer support headcount decreased from 48 to36 over the past few years, but the number of people in directcustomer-contact roles increased from 23 to 27.

The next phase of the automation initiative is called FBO-LINK,and is basically a version of TCM-NET designed to allow fieldmaintenance shops to have direct access to TCM factory support.FBOs will have 24-hour on-line access to warranty status, warrantyclaim tracking, service bulletins, and technical briefs, and abroad range of troubleshooting help. FBO-LINK will be introducedlater this this to a hand-picked group of large FAA repair stations,but ultimately should become available to any field maintenanceshop that wishes to participate. Eventually, FBOs may be ableto use their PC to videoconference with factory support experts(Archer is experimenting with this right now, and showed us ademo).

A third phase of this program, slated for rollout next year, isTCM’s "Gold Medallion Club." This is a version of TCM-NETthat will be available to aircraft owners who have new or remanTCM engines. Owners will have on-line access to warranty status,service bulletins, and tech briefs. This program should provideyet another incentive for owners to choose a factory reman overa field overhaul.

In addition to the headquarters support organization, TCM has10 field technical reps—8 regional reps in the U.S. plus 2 internationalreps. These are the guys your mechanic calls for technical helpor warranty support when you have an engine problem. Each regionalrep is an experienced A&P with extensive expertise in troubleshootingTCM engines. Each rep is equipped with a borescope, a fancy digitalthermocouple test set, a Chadwick-Helmuth balancer, and now (sincethe advent of TCM-NET) a laptop computer, modem, and cellularphone. A couple of the reps who serve geographically-large territoriesalso have company airplanes.

We have first-hand experience dealing with a few of these TCMfield reps. We’ve found them to be technically sharp and goodfolks to work with. The biggest problem is that they travel alot and are not always easy to reach on short notice.

Overall impressions

In one respect, what we saw in the course of our visit to TCMwas what we expected to see: a big, old, dark, smelly factorypacked with hundreds upon hundreds of antiquated metalworkingmachines operated by hundreds of sweaty machinists. And yet wesaw lots of things that we found suprising, and most of the surpriseswere pleasant ones.

TCM is clearly a company undergoing profound change. After a decadeof denial following the precipitous industry downturn of the early’80s, TCM has brought in a new management team and appears tobe turning the company around and doing almost all of the rightthings.

TCM definitely is not behaving like a company on the brink ofgetting out of the business, as rumors might have you believe.TCM is investing millions in state-of-the-art machine tools andcomputer systems. The new cylinder cell has yielded impressiveresults in productivity and cost-cutting, and is a prototype forwhat TCM will be doing to the rest of the factory during the remainderof the decade.

Also contrary to common perception, TCM seems to be doing everythingright in the area of quality assurance. They’re clearly workingharder at Q/A than anyone else we visited (including Lycoming).There’s no queston that TCM had big problems 5 or 6 years agoduring the period of labor unrest. But today we’re inclined tothink that most of the horror stories about TCM’s poor qualityare outdated and a bum rap.

TCM management believes that the OEM market for piston engineswill rise again, and they are making the R&D investment thatthey think is needed to give the airframe builders of tomorrowa good reason to select TCM engines rather than Lycoming. TCMcan be expected to be the engineering front-runner in liquid-cooled,geared, turbocharged, and electronically-managed engines.

If there’s anything that TCM isn’t doing well, it’s communicatingwith the world outside of Mobile. In our judgement, TCM’s advertisingis ineffective. Their public and press relations stink. And theirnew customer support initiatives, although certainly welcome,are coming ten years too late.

If we had one piece of advice for Brian Lewis, it would be this:go hire a top-notch Vice President of Corporate Communications.TCM today has a teriffic story to tell, but it’s doing a lousyjob of telling it. We think TCM’s public image is way past TBOand needs a major overhaul.