Turbomeca chairman and CEO Pierre Fabre knows that for his company to grow and prosper, it is not only necessary to sell engines to helicopter manufacturers that deliver all over the world but also to allow engines to be built in countries like China. But it is naïve to think, Fabre said, that there is no risk of losing control of intellectual property when engines are manufactured by non-Turbomeca-owned entities. On the other hand, he said, there is a French saying. “Fear doesn’t protect from danger.”
“There is risk,” Fabre admitted. “Of course, we try to protect what we have. And the best [plan] is to continue to invest in research and technology to make sure that what we have protected and that is copied is going to be obsolete.” Huge technical progress is made every year in the industry. “By continuing to invest, we have the best protection,” said Fabre. “We spend 10 percent of sales on research and technology. We do that because we are convinced that the world needs more efficient aircraft.” But this R&D also limits the consequences of lack of property control.
China alone represents a great opportunity. Today in China there are fewer than 10 percent of the number of helicopters in the U.S. Yet there are five times more people in China, he noted. “There is huge potential and it's going to happen. Every time we go to China, people talk about the opening of the sky. They’re starting to work on it seriously.”
China needs helicopters for police, security, medical and transportation needs, he said, “the same reasons the rest of the world has. The need will be huge. They need to buy something like 10,000 helicopters, based on GDP and population. Today the world’s manufacturers make about 1,500 helicopters, and China will double the yearly need.”
Turbomeca is not new to China and has about 400 engines operating there, since the early 1980s, according to Fabre. This year, he expects to deliver about 100 engines, 10 percent of the company’s annual production. “It’s a beginning,” he said. And to prepare for the future, Turbomeca is co-developing the Ardiden 3C, a new engine for the seven- to eight-ton helicopter market, to power China’s Z15, under development in cooperation with Eurocopter.
On the service side, Turbomeca is debating an increased presence in China, to supplement its module maintenance facility in Shenzhen with additional heavy repair sites. If growth occurs as expected, “we will have to build more,” he said. “The idea is to have helicopter flight. Engines sitting on the shelf are not doing well.”
Turbine engine efficiency has been improving at an average of one percent per year, but said Fabre, “We need 1.5 to 2 percent per year. Gas turbines will continue to improve. Long term we have to think differently. How do we size a gas turbine to its efficient point? The helicopter is designed for emergency cases, like a twin. The dream would be if we could store emergency power somewhere like a battery, then size the gas turbine to the design. It’s easy to say, but much more complicated to implement. The future will be in some kind of hybrid between gas turbines and fuel cells. We’re just in the beginning of thinking about it. Our kids will do it.”