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Friday, June 1, 2007

AS350: Turbomeca Overhauls Ops, Invests to Address Operators' Concerns

Turbomeca’s customer support of AS350 engines is the stuff that legends are made of. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the legends are often attached to customers going to extraordinary lengths to get the parts and other help they need to keep their aircraft flying.

A top official of an operator of more than 10 AS350s has such a legendary tale. After his organization began operating the AStars, Eurocopter responded well to the initial prods to improve its customer support.

Not so Turbomeca. After numerous fruitless meetings with both the airframe and engine makers, this outfit “got very aggressive in an attempt to resolve some of the support problems.” That eventually led to a sit-down with Eurocopter to explain that if it didn’t get Turbomeca to move, “we were going to have to find another powerplant.”

The engine support in that case improved. But our survey of AS350 operators found numerous other cases of great concern about Turbomeca’s customer support. For instance, the Los Angeles Police Dept.’s Air Support Div., which operates 10 AS350B2s, reports it has made the hefty investment of buying two spare engines because of shortages at Turbomeca.

The French engine maker doesn’t dispute the concerns. Its presentations at the annual Heli-Expo trade show for several years have included confessions about its shortfalls in customer support and outlines of plans for redressing them.

To be fair, Turbomeca is in part of victim of its success. It is a key supplier for Eurocopter, whose sales have been at record levels for years. In 2006, Turbomeca reported producing 979 helicopter engines. That was 25 percent more than what it produced in 2005. With the U.S. Army’s order for 322 UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopters based on Eurocopter’s EC145, as well as other sales, Turbomeca expects to produce up to 2,000 engines a year and is exhausting the ability of its current production facilities to provide parts.

But Turbomeca officials acknowledge that some of the support problems are due to their own missteps. Turbomeca USA, for instance, has recently overhauled its customer-service operation.

“We didn’t have as strong a management and technical backbone in our support group as we wanted,” said Russ Spray, president and CEO of Turbomeca USA. “Turbomeca has had great pockets of support, in field reps, in service engineering, but nobody really putting it together for the customer.”

Customers essentially had to figure out who in the company could get their problems addressed. Turbomeca USA reorganized its support operations into an integrated support team.

“Now we’ve taken all that work for the customer and brought it back into our house,” Spray said, “to figure out how to support the customer best instead of them having to figure out how to do it themselves.”

Turbomeca USA also separated regular customer support from AOG support. Having them paired often led to cases in which day-to-day support was disrupted when an AOG case arose. The company now has a dedicated AOG team.

In addition to the U.S. efforts, Turbomeca in France is focusing executive attention on parts supply. It has created a Supply Chain Div. charged with primary responsibility for managing the flow of parts into it and out to various engine assembly and maintenance support sites.

The company also is expanding its ability to produce parts.

Turbomeca officials in January broke ground for a new factory at their headquarters in Bordes in southwest France. Dubbed Project “Eole,” the 620,000-sq-ft facility will have “a modern, integrated, and sustainable” design and manufacturing capability and “a high-performance production plant, designed to optimize flows and reduce design and production cycles,” the company said.

Turbomeca also is opening a new parts-production plant in Union County, N.C. to help it meet worldwide demand for engines. The new plant will be roughly the same size as Turbomeca USA’s engine production and repair facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, but will focus solely on parts production. It will be used to support production of the Arriel 1E2 engines that power the UH-72A.

In addition, Turbomeca Canada is investing $900,000 to add 3,200 sq ft to its existing tooling facility in Quebec. The facility provides maintenance, repair and overhaul services for the Arriel 1 and Arriel 2 engines and accessories, as well as customer support for North American operators.

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