Airbus Helicopters CEO Discusses Digital Transformation
Airbus’ transformation looks set to touch every part of the group. The helicopters business has already had to take major steps to adapt to the shifting winds of the rotorcraft market.
In stark contrast to the commercial airliner business, with its burgeoning backlogs and prodigious production rates, at least up to the pandemic, the rotorcraft segment has been in something of a rut for nearly a decade. Since a peak in sales in 2008, sales and deliveries have steadily declined and then dropped off considerably after slumping oil prices led to a virtual collapse in commercial orders for lucrative heavy helicopters.
- Airbus Helicopters’ digital switchover could transform production, service functions
- Business has adapted to tougher rotorcraft market conditions
- Airbus calling for European partnership for future military rotorcraft
The COVID-19 pandemic has merely added to the drama. Airbus took orders for 289 rotorcraft during 2020, compared with 369 a year earlier. The falling demand for rotorcraft has already prompted several transformations within the organization, Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even tells Aviation Week. “The rotorcraft market has been a tough one for several years,” he says. “Competitiveness is a key driver, and we have had to address this in our strategy.”
A key component of this strategy was an evolution in the company’s structure that was set in motion by Even’s predecessor and now boss, Guillaume Faury. A process of site specialization was created using the skills and competencies established in each of the company’s home nations: France, Germany and Spain.
The plan called for the creation of so-called major component assemblies (MCA), which would then be shipped to the final assembly line in either Marignane, France, or Donauworth, Germany. That approach aims to reduce the time each aircraft spends in final assembly.
Marignane focuses on dynamic components; Donauworth produces and pre-equips central and forward fuselages; tail booms are built in Albacete, Spain; and main rotor blades are produced at La Courneuve, near Paris.
In addition to the MCAs provided by the company’s constituent countries, the helicopter business has also created what Even calls a “best-cost country” axis for manufacturing components. A site in Queretaro, Mexico, produces aluminum parts for helicopters, while a facility in Hungary, recently topped out, will manufacture high-precision metallic parts for dynamic systems beginning in 2022.
Recent decisions by the commercial airliner business to bring aerostructures in-house are more closely linked with that specific business area and its related market challenges and competition, Even says, and will have little impact on the helicopter business.
“We have a specific industrial strategy per business line, but we have the common challenge to ensure that we can be competitive,” he says.
Parts of the helicopter business do feed into the commercial airliner business: The plant in Donauworth, for instance, produces aircraft doors for all Airbus aircraft programs.
A recent acquisition, however, appears to partially mirror it. By acquiring the aviation technologies business of German engineering company ZF—announced on June 8—Airbus Helicopters has secured additional competencies for development of helicopter dynamic systems and essentially brought in house manufacturing of gearboxes for one of its best-selling products: the H135 twin-engine light helicopter. The ZF acquisition is subject to regulatory approvals and is due to conclude this year.
Like the rest of the company, the helicopters business is advancing Airbus’ transformation into Digital Design, Manufacturing and Services (DDMS), but Even says each business area has defined its own priorities, trajectory and speed of introduction while maintaining a common objective with the rest of the group. Introduction of DDMS will begin with developing capabilities and new kits for the company’s H175 super-medium platform and the production of mechanical parts.
“DDMS brings value, greater efficiency, safety and will improve the collaboration between the different functions,” Even says, but it will be a progressive five-year journey before it is rolled out to all the other platforms in the product line.
Introducing DDMS to production of the company’s newest aircraft, the H160 twin-engine medium, would have added a further complication to bringing the aircraft to market, Even notes. “When we have to define our priorities, we have to take into account the context of each program and not multiply the challenge, which is why we focused [DDMS introduction] on the H175,” Even says.
The pandemic, too, has helped accelerate Airbus’ digital switchover, changing the way the company interacts with suppliers. The company, for instance, introduced an electronic delivery process for customers who could not take the keys to their aircraft in person.
“Digital was a trend that was there before the crisis,” Even says. “The pandemic has reinforced that.”
Like the commercial airliner business, Airbus Helicopters appears in no rush to launch a new product. The company’s latest platform, the H160, has yet to make it to market and has been held up by slower-than-anticipated FAA recognition of its European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification. The launch customer for the aircraft is a private owner in the U.S. Plans for a new heavy helicopter dubbed the X6 to replace the company’s Super Puma family of aircraft were shelved by Faury because the company deemed the technologies for such a platform not yet mature, and the oil and gas market at which it was primarily targeted had dried up due to low oil prices.
“I don’t see the need to challenge this [X6] decision,” Even says. “Innovation, new technology and evolution only make sense as long as they bring value to the market.
“Customers want competitiveness, and they want availability, safety, maturity and performance,” he says. “We have a large product line, the right products to address the market needs.”
The approach to incremental improvements has served the company well in recent years. Customers have lined up to purchase the new five-blade model of the H145 twin-engine light rotorcraft, which provides 150 kg (330 lb.) of additional payload capability, and they have requested a retrofit for earlier-model aircraft to bring them to the same standard. The company has also recently provided software updates to boost the power available to pilots flying the H125, and work is underway to provide a full de-icing system on the H175 with the aim of achieving certification in 2023.
“We will launch a new product when an existing aircraft has reached the end of its development cycle,” Even says. “The H160 is a perfect illustration of what we can do, and it aligns with trends around connectivity and CO2 emission reduction.”
With the Airbus group’s central approach to direct future technology policy, Airbus Helicopters is, like the commercial airliner business, also taking steps to invest in the decarbonization of flight and progressing electric, hybrid and even hydrogen propulsion systems.
Initiatives such as the company’s Flightlab programs, which use company-owned aircraft to demonstrate new technologies, are “agnostic” across the wider group, Even says.
Airbus Helicopters is using a single-engine H130 light helicopter as its Flightlab platform; by comparison, Airbus commercial has been using an A350 airliner. “The idea is to test at the scale of the helicopter but also benefit all our product lines,” Even says.
Programs such as the CityAirbus Advanced Air Mobility demonstrator, currently flying in Germany, and the company’s Vahana electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft have helped the company develop what Even calls technology bricks, making them ready for when the company decides to launch a new product.
But perhaps one of the biggest priorities for Even is positioning the company to prepare for the development of a next-generation medium helicopter for Europe’s militaries.
Last October, NATO launched its Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability project to study the helicopter needs of nations in the 2040s and beyond with a potential requirement for 1,000 helicopters or more across Europe. That development parallels the NH90 aircraft that Airbus developed with Leonardo, a partnership that Even is eager to renew for a future program.
But he is concerned that if European industry does not act now to start maturing technology, it could leave the door open for whatever emerges from the U.S. Future Vertical Lift program to flood the European market.
“We are pushing European industry to be involved in the road map and mature technology to be ready,” Even says. “What I would not like is that we don’t have an alternative to a U.S. program. . . . We can position European industry for such a program. It is critical for competitiveness for European industry that we do.”
The company has made submissions for the funding studies for what it calls the European Next-Generation Rotorcraft Technologies (ENGRT) to the European Defense Fund (EDF) in its call for proposals. Even says the ENGRT proposals have the backing of several countries and suggests the initiative’s “strategic dimension” should make it a perfect fit for the EDF.