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Sunday, August 1, 2004

Euro Jigsaw Puzzle

Giovanni de BrigantiReporting from Marignane, France.

Producing the NH90 is as much a matter of sorting out all the variants as it is producing the helicopter

Twenty years after the NH90 program began to take shape at NATO, the program's partners are moving closer toward winning a manufacturing gamble unprecedented in the helicopter industry: the near-simultaneous delivery of eight different helicopter variants, made by four assembly lines in four different countries, to eight military customers during the first year of production.

And, in parallel, the four manufacturers involved in the program are also completing the development program, looking for new export markets, riding herd on their subcontractors to make up for lost time, and preparing integrated logistics and training services.

This level of complexity is unprecedented--and is one reason for which the program took so long to come to fruition. Other reasons are the partner nations' funding difficulties, their tendency to upgrade their requirements and add new equipment during the development phase, and their insistence to closely adapt the basic design to their specific requirements, which has led to a helicopter with three different cabin options (with and without a rear loading ramp, and a standard or tall cabin), two engine options, and a mind-boggling variety of avionics and electronic equipment.

Surprisingly, according to industry executives, it is not the complexity of this task that is responsible for the one-year delay the program is now experiencing but the inability of governments and subcontractors to deliver on schedule the high-technology communications equipment they have selected for their NH 90s.

"The first production-standard helicopters, for the German army, will be ready in late 2004," says Gilles Dufour, NH90 program manager at Eurocopter, the program's leading industry partner. "However, they will still be missing some radios and some optional government-furnished equipment, such as obstacle-avoidance radars, without which they cannot be qualified and formally delivered to the customer."

Another reason for the delay is that icing tests are running late, as the flight tests centers where they were due to take place have been saturated, Dufour says. Nonetheless, about 30 helicopters were in various stages of assembly at the time of R&W's visit to Marignane in early June.

The first two Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) aircraft for the German army will be completed, barring their radios, by December, but they will not be officially qualified and ready for delivery for several months - probably May 2005 -- after their radios and optional equipment are delivered and tested. Initially, deliveries to Germany were due to begin in April 2004.

Eurocopter and its partners in NH Industries are currently looking at ways to make up for lost time by making these first helicopters available to the German army for training purposes before they are ready to be contractually delivered. This creates some thorny insurance and legal issues, however, and a mutually satisfactory solution is being negotiated with the German MoD.

Radio and other equipment suppliers will not catch up with the delivery schedule until 2006 or 2007, Dufour says. Until then, production helicopters will be completed without the overdue equipment, which will be retrofitted later as it becomes available. Final development of the NFH naval version is running about one year behind that of the tactical transport version, he said.

In parallel, industry is completing the flight test program. Tests still to be carried out include the end of static fatigue trials, de-icing equipment, hot weather trials (scheduled for this summer, using prototype PT5) and the qualification of various customization versions. Two big test programs remain to be completed: qualification of the General Electric T700 engine and the naval mission equipment package.

Eurocopter and NHI officials say that they will ratchet up production to about 25 aircraft per year in 2005 and 40 aircraft per year in 2006, which will allow them to catch up with the original delivery schedule by the end of that year.

By 2007, production rate will have increased to 50 aircraft per year, the planned maximum rate, which will be maintained at least into 2009 before dropping off until 2011, when production of the French army's tactical transports will again cause production rates to increase. To date, NHI has booked a total of 253 firm orders, but participating countries have stated their intention of ordering a total of 635 helicopters.

"Our main challenge is to manage the rapid increase in production rate we must achieve to meet our delivery schedule, while at the same time completing the qualification of a large number of different versions, with specific equipment fits and different customization options," Dufour says.

The NH 90 is being produced in two main versions: the TTH for tactical transport and the naval NFH version, but there are several variants of each version. For example, most transport versions will be fitted with a rear-loading ramp as standard (with the exception of Greek and some German air force aircraft). The ramp is not fitted to the naval version, except for the 27 aircraft on order for the French navy.

In addition, the NFH is designed to carry dipping sonar, outboard weapon stations for torpedoes and missiles weighing up to 800 kilos, and sonobuoy launchers, but again some or all of these features will not be fitted to all aircraft.

Another difference is the cabin. While most production helicopters will have the standard cabin, the Swedish NH90s, dubbed Tactical Troop Transports (TTT) will have a higher cabin (+ 23 centimeters) to facilitate loading and search and rescue missions. Two versions are being developed, one for transport and SAR, and one for anti-submarine warfare. Both will share an all-new mission tactical system developed by SAAB.

Supervising the program on the customer side is NAHEMA, the NATO Helicopter Management Agency, which acts as the program's executive agency on behalf of the Dutch, French, German, Italian and now Portuguese governments.

NAHEMA interfaces with NH Industries, the industrial prime contractor, which is responsible for the overall industrial performance. NH Industries is owned by Agusta (32%), Eurocopter (62.5%) and Stork Fokker (5.5%), and each company acts as a subcontractor with primary responsibility for development and manufacture of various components and systems in proportion to its equity stake.

The NH90's main development and production contract covers 253 helicopters, but includes options to which both Germany (for 55 additional aircraft) and Italy (one aircraft) have contractually committed. France also is committed to ordering 68 TTHs for delivery beginning in 2011, bringing the present total commitment by governments to 376 aircraft.

Portugal, for example, has not yet made a decision on production of the 10 helicopters it has ordered, which is expected to begin around 2008, so there is still a degree of flexibility in adapting the industrial process.

According to the revised schedule to which NHI and its partners are now working, the first German NH90s will be officially handed over to the German Army's Heeresflieger in May 2005. May or June will also see the first delivery of the first Italian troop transports, followed by the first Swedish air force "tall-cabin" version in mid-year. These helicopters will, in fact, remain at Eurocopter's Marignane plant for three years to qualify the "tall cabin" version.

Also planned for mid-2005 is the delivery of the first Finnish helicopter, while the end of the year will see initial delivery of four other versions: the first Greek TTH, the first standard transport version for Sweden and the first naval versions for the French and Italian navies. Finally, the Norwegian Coast Guard naval version is also slated for initial delivery in late 2005, with a specific anti-submarine version to follow later.

Thus, by mid-2005, all four assembly lines will be up and running. The German line, at Eurocopter's Ottobrunn plant, will assemble the German aircraft. The company's second line, at Marignane, will make the naval versions for France and the tactical transport versions for France, Greece (the first of which is already being assembled) and the export market.

Agusta's NH90 assembly line will be located at its Vergiate plant, and will make both the tactical transport and naval version for Italy. The fourth assembly line will be located in Finland and operated by Patria, a defense and aerospace group in which EADS, Eurocopter's corporate parent, recently purchased a 25% stake. Patria has been awarded an initial contract to assemble 50 helicopters at its new facility at J�ms�, including the 32 ordered by Finland and Sweden; the remaining 18 will be found from future export orders, according to Eurocopter's Dufour.

While assembly will be decentralized, manufacturing will be single-sourced to reduce production costs and to simplify industrial coordination. The main management challenge that the program faces is coordinating assembly and managing the dozen or so different configurations on order, as each has to be tested and qualified before deliveries can begin - and before the manufacturers are paid.

An additional complication is the fact that the NH90 will be delivered with two different engines. The Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM-322 will equip most aircraft, but Italy has opted for the General Electric T700, which also powers its EH-101s. On the other hand, Portugal, which also has ordered both helicopter models, will keep the RTM-322 for its NH90s.

Surprisingly, company officials say that despite this complexity they have not encountered significant schedule or cost issues during the pre-production phase, despite the fact that the program is managed and run by a core of about 150 program-management officials; about 70 people at NH Industries, the program's prime contractor, and about 20 people dedicated to the program at each of the four industrial partners.

NH Industries is counting on significant export contracts not only to compensate for the production dip foreseen for 2009-2011, but also to carve out a significant market share in the world market for tactical transport helicopters.

They believe the NH90, with its modern technologies such as fly-by-wire controls and composite structure, has no real competitor on the market place. The three-engine EH-101 is far larger and more expensive, and the U.S.-made Blackhawk is already more than 20 years old with no suitable successor in sight. Other designs such as the Agusta/Bell AB-139 are derived from civil designs and do not compete in the same weight/capability category. Eurocopter has said it will not compete its older Cougar against the NH90 on the export market.

"Overall, we see a potential market for about 1,000 NH90s over the next 20 years," said Alain Gauthier, NH Industries' sales and marketing director, including the orders already booked. NHI and its partners see the world helicopter market growing by about 10 percent per year over the next decade, with tactical transport helicopters representing the largest segment.

The NH90 is currently competing for contracts totaling about 100 orders, but more are anticipated to follow. The largest competition is in Australia, which has expressed a requirement for 40 battlefield transport helicopters to supplement, and eventually replace, its current fleet of S-70 Black Hawks. Best and final offers were submitted in May, and a decision is expected in July or August. The NH90 is competing against Sikorsky, which has offered to provide 13 new-build UH-60Ms and upgrade Australia's 35 Black Hawks to the same standard.

The Sultanate of Oman is negotiating to buy about 20 aircraft, while Saudi Arabia has expressed its intention of buying about ten naval helicopters under a government-to-government contract. At the time of writing, NH Industries was due to submit an offer, through the French government, in June.

Other prospective buyers in the near term include New Zealand, which has issued a request for proposals for a dozen utility helicopters to replace its obsolete UH-1s, and Singapore, where a long-running plan to buy up to eight naval helicopters for the country's new class of stealth frigates has recently been revived.

Additional orders are also expected from existing customers. In its 2001 contract for 14 aircraft, Norway also has an option for 10 Search and Rescue helicopters to replace those currently operated by its coast guard, and it should take up this option shortly. Greece has options for another 14 aircraft, as do other customers.

Finally, NHI - which is responsible for international marketing and sales - has teamed with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pursue opportunities in the Japanese military market and aims to respond to a tentative requirement for a new Search and Rescue helicopter being prepared by the Japanese Self-Defense Agency.

In parallel to organizing production and looking for additional customers, the NH partners are also setting up various customer support functions. Germany signed a specific logistic support contract in May, under which industry will provide all services and spares needed to operate its NH90s for the first three years, and a similar contract is being negotiated with France. Italy, Norway and Sweden have already signed on.

Industry is also looking to offer a coherent solution for simulation and training, possibly as a Private Finance Initiative under which governments would pay an annual training fee without having to buy and operate the equipment and facilities. Various proposals have been readied and are being considered by governments.

In the meantime, Eurocopter is refurbishing and upgrading the NH 90 development simulator so it will be used to train the first batch of pilots until a long-term solution is selected.

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