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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Panel: Helicopter Industry Needs to Develop Science & Technology Faster

CEO panel at AHS Forum 69 features leaders from AgustaWestland, Bell, Boeing, Eurocopter, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, with topics including a challenge to engineers at Google and Apple.

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

A group of six high-ranking officials from AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Eurocopter, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky took part in a CEO panel on May 21 during the American Helicopter Society (AHS) International’s Forum 69 in Phoenix, Ariz.

Rotor & Wing International Bureau Chief Andrew Drwiega moderated the panel, which included incoming (as of July 1) chairman of the AHS board of directors John Garrison, president and CEO of Bell Helicopter, and incoming AHS secretary/treasurer Mick Maurer, president of Sikorsky Aircraft. The group also included James Wang, AgustaWestland vice president of research and technology; Leanne Caret, vice president of vertical lift for Boeing; Yves Favennec, vice president of research for Eurocopter; and Dan Schultz, vice president of ship and aviation systems for Lockheed Martin.

 

Photos by Andrew Parker

 

While only two of the six panelists were actual CEOs (vs. four out of six in the previous year’s panel), the discussion offered a glimpse into the challenges that rotorcraft OEMs face when tackling engineering problems and recruiting young minds into the industry. It also provided a few unscripted and light-hearted moments, such as a Garrison’s contention that Google and Apple engineers should come to the helicopter industry if they want a real challenge, together with the panel’s conclusion that late-night pizza plays a major role in the development of new technologies.

Since last year the rotorcraft industry has lost two of its more dynamic “personalities” that were present at AHS Forum 68 in 2012 – recently departed Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling and former Sikorsky President Jeff Pino, who retired a week after appearing at last year’s forum. One head-of-industry absent from the panel – notable because the company has headquarters in nearby Mesa – was MD Helicopters CEO Lynn Tilton. Robinson President & CEO Kurt Robinson was on hand the following day to accept an AHS award on behalf of his father, founder Frank Robinson, but did not participate in the panel.

Cameron Robertson, co-lead engineer for AeroVelo, which is involved with the Sikorsky-sponsored $250,000 Human-Powered Helicopter competition run by AHS, asked a question about having to “do more with less” in today’s demanding environments and financially-constrained times, which was the general theme of Forum 69. “What is your best approach to inspire passion in your own engineers?” he asked.

Maurer replied that besides the development of the hardware, two things are going to drive the future: “Process change – we heard about how long it takes to develop products – but more importantly than that is anything to do with data and how we process it. I’ve seen some statistics where the amount of data that’s now in the world today is something like 10 million times what it was 10 years ago. The things that we can do with that data, whether it’s for design or for understanding how equipment operates, or for the things we can do to reduce direct operating costs (DOCs) because we understand the condition of the equipment and ways to operate and maintain it better. We may have some very revolutionary changes in overall lifecycle costs that could advance the industry.”

 

 

The Sikorsky president added that DOCs are something “that we don’t talk about every day, and it isn’t as straightforward and maybe not as sexy as some of the hardware that I think is just going to be revolutionary in our industry, and we’re probably going to lag a little bit behind folks like Google, or whatever, but you’re going to see a big change in our industry as a result of that.”

Garrison interjected that passion is “what this industry’s all about.” In order to build interest among the top engineering minds out there, the rotorcraft industry needs “to be more forceful,” he insisted. “Mick said it, we may lose out to Google. I get so blessed irritated on that! So are you smart enough to work for Google? How hard is it to do a Google algorithm vs. the flight control logic for a tiltrotor? Come on, what’s more tough?” Garrison exclaimed, to a round of applause from the audience. “It’s not just about the flight. Take a bar of titanium and create an optical tolerance gear that works every single time and can run without lubrication for an hour. That’s pretty cool.”

Tying in all these elements is important for the industry, Garrison continued, “so that we don’t lose the best and the brightest to algorithm manufacturers called Google and gadget manufacturers called Apple. I think we can bring those minds to the technology challenges that we have here.”

The Bell CEO agreed that one drawback when trying to recruit engineers into the helicopter industry – other than the higher salaries being offered at the leading IT companies, as one astute conference attendee noted after the panel – is the time it takes to develop technology. “They’ll tell you every single time that ‘I can move quickly in those spaces.’ It’s kind of like watching paint dry on our side of the fence.”

Read the full story in the July 2013 print edition of Rotor & Wing and on the web July 1.

Related: Technology News

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