High-volume, low-cost production of unmanned aircraft takes more than innovative design
Today, “build it and they will come” is largely frowned on as a way of doing business in aerospace. But it has worked for Griffon Aerospace, a low-cost, high-volume manufacturer of unmanned aircraft.
Madison, Ala.-based Griffon is close to building its 3,000th MQM-170A Outlaw under contracts to provide target services to the U.S. Army and others for air-defense training. The company is ramping up production of a second-generation Outlaw G2 and beginning construction of its first twin-engine aircraft, as a precursor to a larger vehicle.
The birth of Griffon in 1994 “was a mixture of heavy doses of ignorance, insanity and innovation,” says CEO Larry French. The company's first venture was the Lionheart, a six-seat kitplane he designed to fly his family between Huntsville, Ala., and Pennsylvania. “I designed an aircraft able to carry a family of six a long distance. Then I sold some and found I had started an aircraft company.”
After a couple of accidents and a downturn in the economy, the market for the Lionheart dried up. French went on to build and fly a prototype remotely piloted vehicle on a shoestring, initially for a larger Huntsville-based company that intended to bid for a U.S. Army target services contract. But when the request for proposals was issued in 2003, Griffon decided to bid for the contract itself, and won.
In addition to building up to 60 Outlaws a month, the contract required the company to set up a logistics system to provide pilots and operate the aircraft around the world. An experienced aerospace engineer, French says setting up for high-volume, low-cost production “just about did me in.” Citing early incidents of employees “smoking dope, stealing . . . and fights on the shop floor,” he says building a reliable workforce was the biggest challenge. “We had to hire and fire until we distilled out a confident group of ethical people who would work for a reasonable wage.”
Building a high-volume airframe at an affordable price requires innovation not only in design of the product, but in all dimensions of the business, says French. “You need innovation in contracting, accounting, even support,” he says, adding that Griffon's “way-out-of-the-box” thinking on how to get aircraft and pilots to where they are needed has cut logistics costs 40-50%.
Griffon now has four prime contracts with the U.S. government. “That's nearly unheard of for a small company,” French says. In addition to the 130-lb. Outlaw, the company has contracts to provide the larger, 550-lb. Broadsword, which is being used to simulate tactical-class unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The Outlaw G2 will enter qualification next month and eventually replace the MQM-170A in production and on existing contracts.
The Outlaw G2 will be offered when the company's current five-year Army contract comes up for recompetition within the next two years. Griffon also is preparing to bid on another large prime contract, a small-business set-side, and this time has teamed to “two very large companies” that will provide additional expertise.
The 250-300-lb. twin-engine aircraft, now entering fabrication and expected to fly early next year, represents a step up for Griffon and is based on its experience operating the Outlaw, which often carries payloads costing far more than the aircraft. “That makes me nervous,” says French, “so I want a backup engine on the aircraft.”
The twin—six of which have already been sold—is also “an initial step to something bigger,” he says. Despite its success in the target market, Griffon has not been able to break into the operational UAS business. “Since 2004 we have had our hands full meeting the demand we have,” says French, who believes the lack of success so far may prove “providential” in the longer term.
“If we are going to get into the UAS market, then our next airframe will have the aerodynamics and structures in place so that we can play in that class of aircraft with a no-kidding offering,” he says. “We will not have to make apologies for our product and turn down opportunities. It has taken us time to put the infrastructure in place [to build such an aircraft].”
In launching development of the new twin-engine aircraft, Griffon has gone back to its “build it and they will come” roots. “I like to make things, and hope they do come,” says French. “We have a passion to build things. It's the philosophy of Griffon.”