At a press conference yesterday here at Heli-Expo, Bell Helicopter executive vice president of customer solutions Mike Blake further explained the Fort Worth, Texas helicopter manufacturer’s recent decision to “streamline” its production line. The rationalization will see the Bell 206B3, 210, 427 and 430 helicopters phased out of production by 2010, though the company promises to continue product support for these models indefinitely. This move will leave the 206L4, 407, 412 and soon-to-be-certified 429 in Bell’s product portfolio into the next decade.
The company’s 2007 shipments outline the rationale for the streamlining–more than half of the 181 commercial helicopters it delivered last year were either Model 407s or 412s, with 73 and 39 units shipped, respectively. It delivered 28 Model 206B3s, 25 -L4s, 10 Model 427s and only six 430s. The 365 civil orders Bell logged last year tilt favorably to the 407, 412 and in-development 429, further supporting its decision.
But the move to scrap the 206B3 over the -L4 was more nuanced. Blake rhetorically asked, “Why does Bell need two entry-level helicopters?” referring to the two single-engine turbine machines. What it all came down to was customers placing more orders for the -L4, though he admitted some pressure in trying to compete with the new R66, an entry-level turbine helicopter being developed by Robinson Helicopter.
“Our overall goal with the rationalization was to focus on the products in
demand,” Blake said. Shutting down production for the lower-demand models frees the manufacturer to boost production of the better sellers. In fact, Bell is currently mulling adding a second production line for the 407, with Blake noting that the company could easily ship twice as many of that model without hurting demand. A decision on the second 407 line won’t be made until later this year.
While the company is focusing on its high-demand models, it’s not ignoring new product development. “We’ll announce several new models over the next few years,” Blake noted, adding that customers are likely to see two derivatives of the Bell 429–“one smaller and one larger”–and a new medium-twin entry. However, the company will not be announcing any of these three models here at Heli-Expo.
Meanwhile, Bell continues to flight test the 429, with certification expected late this year. Program director Neil Marshall said it “has shown outstanding performance during the flight-test program.”