Schweizer adapts to new leadership

 - October 30, 2006, 11:39 AM

“There were times when we could ramp up production on one line merely by shuffling some people around from the others,” said president Paul Schweizer of the eponymous light helicopter manufacturer. “Those days are gone now.”

That’s not the only thing that has changed at the Elmira, N.Y. company since Sikorsky bought it last year. It still builds its range of three light helicopters, as well as manned covert surveillance airplanes and the Firescout UAV and components for the likes of Lockheed Martin. But its new owners have brought their influence to bear on almost every aspect of how Schweizer delivers those products and have added a fifth product to the portfolio.

The acquisition’s timing was spot on. Just as Sikorsky was starting to take an interest in the company, the Schweizer family was looking to undertake “huge expansion” of its core business areas, as a number of projects began to gel. However, the company had neither the resources nor the government contracts required to do the job properly. Explained Schweizer, “We needed more mass behind us.”

Sikorsky could offer both and was coincidentally looking to establish a center of excellence that it could devote to the rapid prototyping of new ideas such as its revolutionary coaxial rotor X-2 program. So teaming up made sense for both parties. To enable Schweizer to achieve what it wanted, Sikorsky also brought in lean manufacturing techniques that resulted in only minor increases to available workspace but significant improvement in production output.

“UTC [United Technologies, Sikorsky’s parent] wanted to turn us into a center of excellence,” said Schweizer, “but didn’t want to destroy the company in the process–the entrepreneurship that we have shown over the years. That was one of the reasons it bought us. Now the changeover is complete, but we’re still learning, every day.”

Meeting Customer Demand

The increased interest in Schweizer products has posed a challenge: despite adding nearly 70 people this year, the company is now so lean that there is little fat available to redeploy staff members. Schweizer admits that the helicopter line has been struggling to keep up with customer demand.

“We would like to keep the lag between order and delivery to three to four months for a piston model and maybe six months for a turbine 333. We have increased production by 20 percent this year and plan another 20 percent hike next year, but it’s proving really hard to stick to those time frames.

“I would be less than candid if I didn’t admit we have had problems this year. I can’t tell you how much it hurts to turn a customer toward the competition, and we’ve even had to do that, but we are on the right track back and it is good to know that Sikorsky seems to be as committed as we are to our helicopter product line. We have traditionally sold the machines 50-50 domestic and overseas and have benefited from the recently weak dollar, but the balance remains more or less that.

“We are building the new RQ-8B variant of the Firescout UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] for both the army and navy, with funding solid through FY2006 and first deliveries due this month. However, deliveries to Northrop Grumman for systems integration have been under way for some time now. We did build a manned version of its predecessor, the A model, which allowed us to verify the aerodynamics and explore the whole flight envelope. I think that saved us about a year in development time.

“We plan to go through the same exercise with the fifth prototype of the B model, which we will fly in the not too distant future, so that we can quickly sort out any remaining handling issues.”

Engineers integrated the Honeywell fly-by-wire system into an X-2 engineering mockup, and on November 4 a Schweizer equipped with the new X-2 fly-by-wire system made its first flight in Elmira. The helicopter was said to perform “flawlessly” during the 30-minute flight, while demonstrating the basic capabilities of the Hamilton Sundstrand/Honeywell fly-by-wire system. Sikorsky plans to fly an X-2
technology demonstrator next year.

Detailed design is complete on a “very high” percentage of the helicopter’s construction. Components are under contract to a dozen major subcontractors (LHTEC Industries supplies the T800-801 engine; Eagle Aviation Technologies provides the rotor blades; Aero Composites contributes the six-blade rear propeller; and Moog supplies the vibration suppression system), and first flight is still scheduled for next fall. “Sikorsky is keeping a close eye on us, but the program remains on track.”

“For us at Schweizer to be involved in something as cutting-edge as the X-2 is, I tell you, pretty heady stuff.”

Activity in China remains fairly quiet: Shanghai Sikorsky is taking and selling on Schweizer products but at a fairly low rate. It was the first western OEM to establish production in the People’s Republic, in particular because UTC had built an extremely successful business with its Otis Elevator subsidiary and so decided to establish an early Sikorsky presence. “It was always a long-term investment,” concluded Schweizer. “I am certain it will happen one day. In the meantime, we may be able to get them and other suppliers to make more components for us and, perhaps, help to ease our production pressures.”

“It’s a dynamic environment at Schweizer Aircraft right now–the way we run the business has changed completely in the last 15 months. We don’t yet have all the answers, but we’re at a very exciting place.”