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A Barometer of the Future

By SME Media Staff

The H160, leading the industrial revolution at Airbus Helicopters

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The three H160 prototypes flying near Marseille, France.

The H160 is Airbus’ next generation medium twin helicopter, incorporating the latest innovations with 68 patents in total and designed to reach the most exacting levels of performance, economic competiveness, availability, safety and comfort—all with a low environmental footprint. But the innovation doesn’t stop at the features of the aircraft, the H160 embodies the company’s transformation plan launched in 2014, changing the way Airbus Helicopters develops, produces and supports its helicopters.

Digital continuity is the backbone of the changes implemented on the different processes used on the H160 program.

The H160 is the first aircraft to be designed at Airbus Helicopters using the 3D data as master. The single source of design data, is easily shared, through a digital mock-up, between design office, production and support engineers and is made more robust at each step of the development process.

For example, Airbus Helicopters put a process, based on what is already used in the automotive industry, called “the ring” into place. It was used during the prototype assembly phase and is currently being used in the pre-serial phase. It consists of putting design office engineers, production workers who will assembly the part of the aircraft, and quality engineers, and even the suppliers when applicable and together they go through the assembly process step by step to ensure that everything works as it should, making corrections to the design when necessary. The pre-serial helicopter phase will be performed using the first 10 helicopters. These aircraft will be assembled slowly to validate the new industrial process before pushing the button to launch full serial production.

So what’s so different about the H160’s industrial process?

Major Component Assembly

Firstly, the aircraft’s industrial architecture has been divided into Major Component Assemblies (MCAs). These units, such as the tail boom, the airframe and dynamic components are assembled and tested as separate sub-assemblies before being delivered to the final assembly line. Their production takes between 7 and 13 weeks.

One of the main advantages is that the MCAs are assembled in parallel and then delivered to the final assembly line to be plugged together to make an H160 in just 40 days. This approach means that the final assembly line assembles around 1,000 parts compared to 4,000 on a legacy helicopter. The overall industrial lead-time for the H160 is reduced to 24 weeks, less than half of what it takes to manufacture its predecessor.

“This modular approach to the aircraft’s architecture brings a lot of advantages for customers, giving them more flexibility as they can now wait until 24 weeks before delivery of their aircraft to confirm which mission configuration they would like” said Bernard Fujarksi, head of the H160 program at Airbus Helicopters.

Site Specialization

Another important aspect of the new industrial model is the use of site specialization. Like the commercial airplane side of Airbus, Airbus Helicopters had decided to implement site specialization for its different facilities. The aircraft’s stylish, sound-reducing Blue Edge blades are produced in the Paris-Le-Bourget site, Airbus Helicopters’ dedicated center of excellence for designing, producing and repairing blades. The full composite airframe is produced in the company’s facility in Donauworth, Germany and is equipped with the fuel system, flight controls, floors and doors before being tested and expedited to Marignane, France. Marignane takes care of the cockpit avionic bay and all of the aircraft’s dynamic components. Lastly, the tail boom, including the largest fenestron on any Airbus helicopter which is also inclined to 12 degrees, is manufactured by Daher in the southwest of France before being sent to Airbus Helicopters’ Albacete site in Spain to be equipped with rear transmissions and electric cables and so on. The site specialization approach drives greater quality and competitiveness.

The Final Assembly Line

The final assembly line is, in and of itself, a step change in the company.

It was ergonomically designed for greater worker safety with a brand new aircraft-encompassing upper platform. The aircraft can also be raised or lowered easily depending on what work needs to be done, giving workers safer and more comfortable working positions. Heavy lifting of pre-assembled MCAs like the avionic bay or the tail boom can be done using a specially designed semi-automatic arm.

There is also a new tool that allows workers to install the main dynamic assembly and engines in a safe and precise manner. The flow line has five stations each with a takt time of eight days, and the H160 moves from one station to the next in just five minutes using an automatic guided vehicle.

The final assembly line can produce 35 helicopters a year, but also has the surface necessary to install an additional flow line to increase the production rate when necessary.

Digital Shop Floor

The H160 will also benefit from the digital shop floor experience initially trialed on the Airbus Helicopters’ light helicopters assembly line.

All workers are issued a tablet that they use to consult electronic work cards, to signpost any quality issues and to record tasks performed. The tablets are linked to a Manufacturing Execution System in real time, and the progress of each helicopter on the assembly line is shown on an ANDON board, allowing every stakeholder to visualize the status of the assembly line at any given moment.

“Quality is of the utmost importance, and to continue making continuous improvement in this domain, we have installed RFID tags on all of our toolings, which further reduces the risk of foreign object damage,” said Laurence Bejat, head of the H160’s final assembly line.

All of these industrial aspects are not unique to the H160, but it is the first helicopter to reunite all of them in one single production line.

Site specialization is a company strategy and is being applied to other products, for example the factory in Albacete, Spain, will become a center of excellence for the manufacturing of major components assemblies and will specialize in the production and integration of the rear fuselages of all Airbus helicopters.

Another successful example of this transformation is the Paris-le Bourget site, where all of Airbus Helicopters’ blade design, industrialisation and production activities are concentrated.
This also allows our different sites to focus on specific technologies and for the operators to become specialized in production operations with a high added value. This generates savings as expensive means are not being duplicated in different sites.

Thanks to this redistribution of operations and economies of scale, each site contributes to the optimised production of the entire range and becomes more resilient to market fluctuations.
Similarly, the MCA approach is also being applied to other serial aircraft in Airbus Helicopters’ range to reduce the production cycle time.

Assembling and testing MCAs ahead of the final assembly line means issues are detected far earlier in the production cycle, boosting quality and competitiveness.

This is Airbus Helicopters’ underlying goal, driving all of the changes in the industrial model, including digitalization: to deliver a high quality product to customers more quickly in order to maintain a competitive advantage in a fluctuating market.

Edited by SME Media, using information supplied by Airbus Helicopters.

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