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Friday, February 1, 2013

Partnerships May Hold Key to the Future

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

aparker@accessintel.com

With the U.S. government “fiscal cliff” averted in early January but debt ceiling talks and spending cuts still up in the air as of this writing, uncertainty remains about how much money will be available for future U.S. military needs, including its helicopter fleet. The commercial sector has a few bright spots but with the global economy still in flux, companies are looking for ways to combine resources and leverage common goals to meet the needs of helicopter operators.

Of course this concept of teaming isn’t new, and while there are many examples of successful partnerships and joint ventures during 2012 and before, I’d like to focus on two announcements made in January where aircraft OEMs are pooling their resources to address the needs of emerging markets, both in commercial and military acquisition circles.

The long-term teaming agreement between Sikorsky and Boeing (see story on page 14) to develop a Phase 1 Joint Multi-Role demonstrator—which is the precursor to Future Vertical Lift, or FVL—for the U.S. Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate is a recent example of collaboration in the military arena. While officials from both companies didn’t offer many details during a January 17 conference call with reporters, they did indicate a desire for speed as part of the equation, which could point to Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider (the offshoot of the X2 technology demonstrator) being involved in some way, or perhaps technology from Boeing’s AH-64 Apache E variant could play a role.

More details will emerge in March, when the companies plan to submit a joint proposal to the U.S. Army. Phase 2 of the JMR program is scheduled for 2015 and the Sikorsky/Boeing team will produce “one or more” technology demonstrators by 2017.

The JMR agreement isn’t the first time that Boeing and Sikorsky have worked together—the two collaborated on the RAH-66 Comanche, building two prototypes from 1996 to 2004 before the program was scrapped due to cost overruns. Will the advances achieved in the Comanche’s design be incorporated into Boeing/Sikorsky’s latest offering? Time will tell.

In mid-January, AgustaWestland announced an agreement to establish a joint venture with South American airline giant Embraer. The announcement comes roughly a month after another AgustaWestland joint venture—HeliVert, which is a partnership with Russian Helicopters—flew a Russian-produced AW139 for the first time (see story on page 20).

The memorandum of understanding with Embraer opens up the possibility of manufacturing AgustaWestland helicopters in Brazil for both commercial and military uses throughout Latin America.

AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini noted the importance of “having an industrial presence” in a fast-growing helicopter market such as Brazil as central to creating the joint venture with Embraer.

The two companies have conducted preliminary studies that indicate a strong demand for twin-engine, medium lift rotorcraft, specifically in the offshore oil and gas sector. Other potential growth areas in South America include military and executive transport. AgustaWestland and Embraer will launch the joint venture “within a few months” after finalizing the agreement and obtaining regulatory approvals.

These are just a pair of very recent examples—like other industries, joint ventures, mergers, takeovers, buyouts and acquisitions have always been around, and at any moment the possibility exists that longtime rivals could become “friends” that combine resources for a shared objective. Of course there are also the partnerships that OEMs establish with component and systems providers, such as engine makers, avionics suppliers and completions specialists. But will this trend of multiple primes working together continue?

At the AHS Forum in May 2012, a panel of helicopter industry leaders predicted that teaming would hold the key to the future of the industry (see “Innovation, Collaboration Essential to Future Success,” June 2012, page 32). “We’ve partnered with almost everybody here at the table over time,” observed Bell Helicopter President & CEO John Garrison, “so I think the industry’s going to grow, the opportunity is there, and you’re going to see new entrants before you see fewer competitors. What happens in 2030? I can’t speak to that, but we think the industry’s profitable and worth investing in.” Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling remarked that finding new markets means not only finding new operators, but also discovering new uses. “There is room for growth, but there will be new entrants. There will not only be six, there will be eight or nine, some of us might disappear, and those who will disappear are those who are not leading innovation.”

With a number of unknowns still prevalent in the worldwide economy and U.S. defense budget, the road ahead appears—now more than ever—to be paved with cooperation. Let’s hope that the major players in the helicopter industry can find ways to work together better than the politicians in Washington, D.C.

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