Venerable helicopter manufacturer reworks culture and product line
When we last talked you estimated you were about one-third of the way along a journey to changing Bell’s culture and implementing new tools and techniques. Is the company where you want it to be yet?
I’m where we wanted to be and that’s about 60 percent of the way along the journey. The drive for change in industry today is at an all-time high, and we are responding and adapting to that drive. I still hold our Town Hall meetings [briefing forums led by Redenbaugh to individual Bell departments–Ed.]–so far this year I’ve talked to about 800 people–and they are a very effective way of reinforcing the changes taking place in our culture and celebrating our accomplishments. We need to do that as well because 2005 was a wonderful year for us.
This pressure for constant change can be unsettling, can’t it? Do you factor in periods when nothing happens, just to give everyone time to settle?
We build in plateaus like that but, overall, everyone is used to the idea that we live in a period of constant change–they have to be prepared for conditions of permanent white water. By that I mean the days of long periods of time punctuated by short, frenzied periods of activity are gone. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
When you go through systemic or foundational changes such as those demanded by Six Sigma, the journey includes making people aware of it, then breeding familiarity and then, over a number of years, driving it into everyone’s DNA, to the point where it becomes almost second nature. We are approaching that point now but still constantly looking for ways to make improvements. Once you have the basic framework in place, you’re always looking for new features to bolt onto it.
We’re still getting suggestions as to how to optimize the factory floor. When you’ve been in business for 50 years, you tend to think, well, we must have that aspect right at least. But it’s not the case. Our drive center employs more than a thousand people: over the past 18 months it has been one of the most aggressive teams in completely overhauling the way they work in their particular environment.
We are just setting up our new repair operations center and that entire department has been organized in a more streamlined manner. We also apply lean tools to personnel issues–we hired more than 3,000 people last year so we needed to go through that process and make the process of putting them to work as efficient as possible.
We are on course to double the size of our business from its 2004 position to 2010. If you look at the reports, we grew quite nicely during 2005 and are looking for another year of growth in ’06.
Is the ARH (armed reconnaissance helicopter) contract having an impact on your commercial lines?
We can absorb it at this stage but are expanding the areas required for later in the production cycle. We’re adding a new 128,000-square-foot area at Alliance airport, which will become its final integration and delivery facility, but we have all the required production capacity in place.
Notwithstanding this, as well as recruiting those 3,000 people, we added more than 300,000 square feet of capacity during 2005.
How is MAPL (modular affordable product line) progressing?
We’re working on an A-Flex rotor system, a new design that allows greater main rotor movement relative to drive inputs. This offers extra flexibility to aircraft operations and, in particular, to managing a helicopter’s center of gravity. This could benefit current as well as future designs. We’ve continued to work on PATS (propulsive anti-torque system) and building a 1/21 scale model of the Quad Tiltrotor to prepare for wind-tunnel tests this year.
Here at Heli-Expo we’ll also be launching a market study to look into a configuration for the first all-new medium twin of the 21st century, and at the MAPL technologies we might incorporate into that.
What, to compete with the AW139?
Well, it would be a nice aircraft in that arena, making use of a lot of new technology.
With the AB139 gone now, what is your strategy regarding the BA609?
We’re still partners with Agusta and will continue to be partners. Regarding the 609 in particular, we have been expanding the envelope but I have a strong feeling that the V-22 needed to get through some milestones–which it certainly did during 2005– so that we could ensure the BA609 benefited from the lessons learned.
As pioneers of tiltrotor technology, we will continue to take the lead role in developing the BA609. We’re focusing on aircraft one here, which, after adjustments, should be back in the air any day now. The aircraft in Italy has not flown yet but we expect it to this summer.
Has your investment in the B210 proved worthwhile?
The aircraft is on the Edwards booth here at Heli-Expo and we’re hoping to pick up some orders. It’s early in the sales cycle but we’ve had some success and I’m pleased at where we are. It’s a great value utility ship.
How is the 429 progressing?
We have more than 150 aircraft on order. The fuselage is being built in Canada and I witnessed the mating of the two halves in mid-January. First flight is scheduled for late this year and certification a year after that.