Robinson is expanding; factory to double in size

 - May 6, 2008, 9:15 AM

Robinson Helicopter Co. (RHC) will break ground on a 50-percent expansion of its Torrance, Calif. factory later this year. The 260,000-sq-ft combination manufacturing plant, flight-test facility and delivery center will extend westward along the south side of Torrance Airport’s Runway 11/29, adding 130,000 sq ft. Robinson moved into the facility, purpose-built for helicopter manufacturing, in July 1994 after operating for nearly 20 years from a comparatively modest site at the airport’s northeast corner. Designed by Frank Robinson to be energy efficient and environmentally friendly, the factory is oriented such that with doors open at each end, the prevailing breezes off the nearby Pacific Ocean provide near-automatic climate control.

A Bump in the Road
The expansion project was delayed last year by a market downturn, according to Frank Robinson’s son, Kurt, v-p for product support. Interestingly, the younger Robinson attributed depressed sales last year to the strength of the U.S. dollar against other currencies and a worldwide economic recession much more than to the effects of September 11. “We view September 11 as a one-time, short-term event that, in fact, was followed by a surge in orders for us, especially from police agencies.”

The Robinson Helicopter v-p for product support added that among his company’s customers most seriously hurt by September 11 and the ensuing response were flight schools and newsgathering operations–“the last ones allowed to start flying again.” He noted that RHC new helicopter deliveries last year sank 16 percent from the previous year, when the company had 800 employees, more than $100 million in total sales and produced more helicopters (390) than all other North American manufacturers combined. The younger Robinson said turn-of-the-century sales boomed with introduction of hydraulic flight controls as standard on the four-place R44.

The strong dollar-based mini-slump led to layoffs that reduced the workforce to less than 600 by last September. The v-p said a weakening dollar in world money markets has had a positive effect on order volume this year, making it possible to recall a number of those furloughed. Last year Robinson delivered 328 new helicopters, 194 of which were R44s. Introduced in 1993, the R44 has outsold Robinson’s original product, the two-seat R22, over the past four years.

From 1979 through the first quarter of this year, RHC had delivered more than 1,200 R44s and some 3,300 R22s. In the first quarter of this year, R44s and R22s accounted for 62 percent of all deliveries in the North American helicopter market (94), a percentage nearly identical with that in all of last year.

While the 59 deliveries reflected a lower number of orders booked last year, RHC is maintaining a current production rate of three R22s and three to four R44s a week, which would support an annual production rate of 330 to 355 ships. The company’s all-time high annual production was 402 R22s in 1991. The current interval between a customer order placement and helicopter delivery is approximately 12 weeks.

Robinson said RHC populates its linear production line with batches of 50 helicopters–“We order everything for 50 at a time. It simplifies the material acquisition and manufacturing processes and leads to economies of scale in ordering.” It helps that the company maintains commonality between the R22 and R44 wherever feasible.

Unlike companies such as MD Helicopters in Arizona, which classifies itself as an assembly operation and outsources a high percentage of its helicopters’ content, RHC fabricates on site nearly everything that goes into R22 and R44 airframes and rotor systems. Nearly all the welding and machining that goes into a Robinson helicopter takes place in the Torrance factory, along with painting.

Lycoming engines, avionics, light fixtures and mission equipment are the only major equipment items procured from vendors. The RHC plant employs a score of identical computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining centers that are software programmable to quickly shift among a wide variety of tasks. However, much of a helicopter–such as wiring harnesses and airframe subassemblies–is hand fabricated by skilled craftsmen and -women, many of whom are long-time RHC employees.

New Life for Hard-working Helos
Because they have a substantial number of life-limited systems, parts and components, Robinson helicopters are required to be completely overhauled after 2,200 operating hours or 12 years. Until recently, owners had to return their machines to RHC in Torrance for all such overhauls. Now the company is making available 2,200-hr overhaul parts kits so that the work may also be done at one of the 200 Robinson factory-authorized service centers in 50 countries.

Although Robinson and the FAA call the process an overhaul, it more closely resembles a remanufacture. The helicopter is completely disassembled, cleaned and inspected. Parts, components and assemblies with less than a 2,200-hr TBO or found to be out of tolerance are replaced with new items. With more than 4,500 R22s and R44s delivered, the 2,200 hr “overhaul” market represents substantial current and future business for RHC.

A Robinson helicopter’s Lycoming engine also carries a 2,200-hr TBO and is typically overhauled at the same time as the airframe. An owner may opt to return his engine for a factory remanufacture; exchange it with RHC for an OEM remanufactured one; send it to an approved engine overhaul/remanufacturing facility; exchange it for a powerplant that has been completely overhauled by Robinson engine specialists in the Torrance factory; or have the RHC shop completely redo his own block. Robinson said many customers choose an RHC remanufactured engine exchange, which he called competitively priced at $14,500 for an O-360 and $21,000 for an O-540.

He added that a Robinson remanufactured engine has niceties not found in even OEM factory remanufactures, including certain added seals and precise lapping of mating flat metal surfaces for tighter gasket fits and less oil seepage.

When the Robinson remanufacturing process is completed, an owner receives an essentially brand-new helicopter with a zero-time engine at a fraction of its original price. According to the RHC operating cost estimate sheet, for an R44 Raven listing for $310,280 (including com, GPS and transponder), the parts and labor tab for airframe and engine, come overhaul time, would be around $140,000. For the current R22 Beta II, listing at $169,270 (including auxiliary fuel, com, GPS and transponder), the airframe and engine overhaul bill would be approximately $80,500. When done in the RHC factory, remanufactured helicopters are reassembled alongside those being newly built and by the same technicians.

This spring RHC extended the manufacturer’s limited warranty on R22 and R44 materials and workmanship to 24 months or 1,000 operating hours, with no price increase or additional surcharge. Concurrently, Textron Lycoming increased its engine warranties from one to two years on O-360 and O-540 powerplants installed in new Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters ordered after February 1. RHC said the warranty extensions reflect derated operation of the engines with reduced power limits, compared to other helicopter applications.

Robinson will customize helicopters right off the assembly line to fit customers’ needs. One of the most recent special-mod jobs performed resulted in the first digitally equipped R44 newscopter. Delivered to Metro Networks, the new helo comes with a 360-deg, continuous-rotation, five-axis gyro-stabilized camera system with an Ikegami HL-59WNA digital camera and Canon 21X lens, all mounted in a steerable chin bubble.

RHC appears unlikely soon to widen its product line beyond the two-seat R22 and four-place R44, although it offers variations (some extensive) within those basic models. Robinson has phased in product improvements over time. Among the most noticeable are hydraulically boosted cyclic pitch controls in the R44, and electronic RPM-sensing throttle governors for both models. Other incremental refinements include what RHC calls carb heat assist and a rotor brake. The former, a boon in high humidity environments, adds induction heat when the collective is lowered and decreases it when the collective is raised.

The most recent, scheduled for introduction this summer, is a high-altitude version of the R44 Raven, featuring modified fuel/air induction to the helicopter’s six-cylinder Lycoming O-540 engine. This will allow maintaining maximum power to higher altitudes, adding 2,000 ft to the Raven’s in-ground-effect (IGE) hovering altitude ceiling, currently 6,400 ft. Out-of-ground-effect  (OGE) ceiling improves to 4,200 ft from 2,800 ft. The high-altitude machine will participate in a U.S. Border Patrol fly-off this fall to evaluate helicopters best suited to operate in the hot-and-high environments encountered along much of the Mexican border.

Kurt Robinson, no doubt reflecting his father’s sentiments, appeared to have little anxiety about competition in RHC’s market niche.

It is represented, among production certified helicopters, only by Schweizer and the Texas-built Brantly B2B, whose sales in recent years have not exceeded low double digits. Robinson reliability and safety numbers seem to justify such confidence.

Recent analysis of accident rates by helicopter model in the UK commissioned by the CAA, said Robinson, has shown the R22, used predominantly in flight training, to be statistically almost four times safer than the Schweizer 300/Hughes 269, its chief competitor in the ab initio training mission, and–in hour-to-hour comparison–as safe as turbine-powered helicopters.