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Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding the Right Parts

Old Helicopter Adage: A helicopter is basically a large collection of parts, all flying in loose formation in the same direction.

By Douglas Nelms

Rapco, Inc. of Hartland, Wis., is a manufacturer and distributor of PMA parts for both helicopters and airplanes. Photo courtesy of Rapco
A helicopter is, in fact, a very large collection of parts, most of which operate in an extremely violent fashion. Which means, of course, that they have to be replaced on a regular basis – normally during a pre-determined period based on flight time or flight cycles.

But when the mechanic finds a small crack in the tail rotor drive shaft, a worn turbine engine blade or problems with any of the other hundreds of parts that can fail, an emergency call goes out for a replacement part that will keep that aircraft in the air.

Fortunately, there are a large number of options to a helicopter operator when his aircraft goes AOG (aircraft on ground). Today, the greatest asset to the operator with a helicopter AOG is one of the simplest – the Internet.

In the “days of yore,” when an aircraft went AOG, someone got on the phone and started making calls, sending out telexes, looking in the latest edition of Trade-A-Plane, or any of the other time-consuming methods of finding out who had the part that was needed.

Today, the Internet has changed that, allowing almost instantaneous contact between the buyer and the seller. Even Trade-A-Plane now has a website for finding a needed part quickly.

So the question isn’t so much how does the operator find the needed part, but from whom? Someone with a brand new Bell 429 or AW139 still under warranty probably will not have a lot of trouble getting a replacement part directly from the OEM. Since most of the major manufacturers don’t actually make all of the parts for their helicopters, they try to ensure that their suppliers keep sufficient spares available to serve their customers.

Matthieu Louvot, senior vice president, Support and Services for Airbus Helicopters, noted that there are three kinds of parts: those that Airbus Helicopters designs but are built under license by suppliers, parts that the supplier designs and builds, “and parts that we produce ourselves.” These are all considered OEM parts, “so what we try to do is keep the supply chain running with the original design validated by us with production certificates. We deal with the supply chain daily to keep them producing the parts as much as needed and possible.”

For helicopters produced in great numbers, such as the EC145 and its military version, the UH-72A, parts are not a problem. “That is a well-known aircraft with a well-known requirement for parts,” Louvot said. “So I don’t forecast any problems providing spare parts.”

Technicians at Aeronautical Accessories, a subsidiary of Bell Helicopter, inspect a replacement windscreen. Photo by Ernie Stephens
The challenge comes in keeping parts procurable and in the logistic supply chain for older models. This includes helicopters dating back 30 or 40 years, or longer, which are no longer being produced.

“We support more than 100 versions of different types of aircraft dating back to the 1960s,” he said. “So a helicopter is produced for 20 or 30 years, then needs to be supported for another 40 or 50 years. So overall, there is about an 80-year span where you have to provide material support.”

All the major manufacturers have some form of Web-based link to their spares sales department, with Web-based systems to allow their customers to simply log on to get the parts they need. Louvot said that about 80 percent of spare parts ordered in the United States are through its Keycopter E-commerce website established about five years ago. This allows a wide range of customer services, including the ability to order spare parts. It is currently available to customers in the U.S. and Europe, with service to Mexico, Australia and New Zealand “available very soon.” It will be deployed “to all the big markets in the next 12 to 15 months,” he said.

Eric Cardinali, executive vice president, Bell Helicopter’s Customer Support and Services, said that Bell has a Legacy Spares team that works with suppliers to procure or manufacture out-of-production parts that the company no longer builds. “This team manages more than 36,000 out-of-production part numbers to source for potential builds,” he said.

He also emphasized that Bell considers the production of spares for its current fleet of aircraft to be just as important as the production of new helicopters. Bell uses an IT system called VISTA, which allows operators to quickly check both the part’s availability and prices, providing “instant, real-time access for our customers around the world via the Web.”

But what happens when the manufacturer says, “Sure, we can get that part for you. Shouldn’t take more than three or four weeks.”

So – back to the Internet.

For operators of helicopters who are unable to get what they need from the OEMs, there are parts providers who stock literally thousands of parts or work as middlemen connecting the buyer with the seller – and these range from the very simplest to the rather sophisticated. Helicopter Links (www.helicopterlinks.com), defining itself as “the online yellow pages of the helicopter industry,” lists 60 worldwide companies providing spares for helicopter. This includes 41 in the United States and 15 in Europe.

One such company, Helicopterparts.com, is a website, pure and simple, according to owner Rick Seeman. “It is just a website, and the easiest way to get out the word that you need a part.” When an operator goes to helicopterparts.com, the home page presents two columns –“Parts Listing” and “Fast Track Locator.” Both of these list a large range of helicopters supported, including Mil helicopters.

The “Fast Track Locator” allows the operator to list exactly what he or she needs. “We then send out an e-mail to anybody we think might have that part,” Seeman said. “It lets people know you need that part. At the same time, it will generate an ad for you on the left hand side of the home page (Parts Listing) in the helicopter category required.”

“Before the Internet it was virtually impossible to find (the part) quickly. Now you get a call back in five minutes,” he said. “For a part that might cost $40,000 with a six-month delivery from the OEM, you might get a call from some guy with the part in stock for $20,000 on the shelf. And it might be a brand new surplus part. It’s that dramatic.”

Helicopterparts.com does not charge for its services. Seeman said they make their money selling banner space on the website, although “we are going to start doing some enhancements on how many ads you place. We’ll eventually start charging for people who put on a lot of listings.”

While helicopterparts.com fits the needs of a small operator or individual helicopter owner, medium to large operators can go to larger providers on the other end of the scale, such as Inventory Locator Service (ILS), a Memphis, Tenn.-based conduit for parts, equipment and services.

Like helicopterparts.com, ILS “does not get involved in the actual purchase transaction,” said Don Wilson, vice president of sales for ILS. “What we do is bring the buyer and seller together 100,000 times a day.” Like helicopterparts.com, ILS uses the Internet for its link between the parts buyers and sellers.

However, unlike helicopterparts.com, ILS charges for its services under contracts based on the requirements of the customers. But it also offers a much wider range of services, including repair services listings as well as a government research tool (GRT) that allows its customers to research U.S. DoD National Stock Number (NSN) information.

Another big difference “is that we have people out in the field. We have 12 people in the U.S. and another 18 internationally who go out and visit the customers, do inventory reviews and validate that the customers have what they say they have,” he said.

Wilson noted that different manufacturers use similar part numbers, “so it may not be the exact part you are looking for. But we’ll tell you 80 percent of the time if the part number you are looking for is available, the buyer has to determine if that is the right part by looking at the description or electronically contacting the supplier. We have factory new parts from major distributors such as Aviall, and then we have new surplus parts that could be from companies who buy military surplus, especially on the helicopter side. They’ll buy UH-1H parts that may be compatible to a Bell 205, or OH-58 parts that are compatible to a 206.”

When a part is requested from ILS, it is automatically cross-referenced so that it does have an NSN, so it will be cross-referenced to the commercial part number.

“At the same time, we’ll cross-reference the PMA data base to see if we have a part that could be either an OEM or a PMA part,” Wilson said.

The Airbus parts center located in Marignane, France. Photo by Andrew Drwiega
A company that does not currently use the Internet, but has come up with a novel solution is Timken, a North Canton, Ohio-based company that serves a wide range of industries worldwide and provides aerospace aftermarket solutions for everything from replacement parts and bearing repair to engine overhaul services. Older, legacy rotorcraft platforms are a specialty, according to Larry Shiembob, director, Aerospace Aftermarket for Timken. That includes stocking spares for “a lot of aircraft that were certified in the late ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said.

He noted that Timken tends to have 70 to 80 percent of the parts needed for older aircraft on its shelves, and can ship them the same or next day with savings of 20 to 30 percent over OEM parts.

Timken does not provide online access to parts. Transactions are done by telephone. However, the company signed an agreement in July with Phoenix Heliparts, a Mesa, Ariz.-based helicopter MRO that will now carry Timken parts in their on-line store.

“So if people want to check inventory, they can search the Phoenix Heliparts website (www.phoenixheliparts.com) for Timken products,” Shiembob said. “We’re going to try it and see what the demand is.”

He noted that this agreement will provide 24-hour access to more than 1,600 FAA approved PMA parts “as well as advanced component repair expertise.”

There is no PMA vs. OEM parts controversy. It’s over. Sufficient evidence has proven that PMA parts are just as safe as OEM parts. And the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 prevents any manufacturer from voiding a warranty just because an operator puts a PMA part on a helicopter still under warranty – unless that part actually causes the problem.

“People, including the OEMs, have recognized PMA as legitimate competitors. It’s more of an economic issue now,” said Jason Dickstein of the Washington Aviation Group and president of the Modification and Replacement Parts Association (MARPA).

In February this year, the FAA provided very pointed direction to U.S.-based air medical operators via AC27-1b involving the collection of in-flight data and the systemic analysis of that data via an FAA-approved safety management system (SMS). “This includes a proactive element in which [the industry] is actually analyzing data so it can predict where future failures might occur…taking away even the potential for an accident,” Dickstein said.

A number of PMA companies are now looking for data from their business partners, “using SMS data not only to maintain safety in their own lines of parts, but also seeking data on OEM materials in order to figure out where future failures will be. They’ll figure out what the reliability flaw is and how to fix it so they can safely bring a part to market.”

Even the primary manufacturers are getting into PMA parts a bit. Both Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney have offices to deal with PMA parts, and Bell Helicopter Textron said that, while it primarily only authorizes Bell OEM-approved replacement parts, its customer service facilities can use PMA parts if specifically reviewed, authorized and distributed by the company’s Aeronautical Accessories brand. The Aeronautical Accessories brand “distributes more than 4,000 unique part numbers and offers more the 375 Bell Helicopter STC’d products for aftermarket installation,” Cardinali said.

Bell also signed an MOU with Able Engineering & Component Services last February “to discuss opportunities to collaborate on Able Engineering developed repairs,” Cardinali said. This collaboration will allow Bell “to explore ways to reduce our customer’s operating cost and reduce their downtime,” he said.

Able Engineering is a component repair and overhaul company with “a large spares inventory and PMA parts,” the company said.

Related: Parts News

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