Keystone readies for S-76D production

 - July 29, 2008, 11:51 AM

Sikorsky’s Keystone Helicopter division is gearing up to produce both the S-76D and the S-92 at its Coatesville, Pa. Heliplex campus. The first S-76D is scheduled to fly by year-end, but Keystone’s president, David Ford, acknowledges, “That’s going to be a challenge.” Keystone has received three S-76D fuselages from Aero Vodochody and hopes to ship the first completed S-76D to Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Fla. flight test center at the end of this month.

Keystone has already received an FAA production certificate for the S-76C++ and will add the D to that authorization. It also anticipates receiving FAA approval to manufacture the larger S-92. On its way to meeting its goal of producing 100 helicopters per year by 2012, the company is dealing with the FAA regulatory process, expanding Keystone’s physical plant and increasing required staffing and management levels. Ford said that the current order book for the D model stands at about 100 helicopters and that the backlog of S-92 orders amounts to between 18 and 24 months of production.

Obtaining the production certificate is a “phased-in” process, according to Ford. “That is what the FAA likes to see.” Plans to produce both helicopters at Coatesville were set in motion when Sikorsky acquired Keystone in 2005. Keystone began doing major subassembly work on the S-76C++ and was subsequently granted a stand-alone production certificate for that helicopter late last year. The S-76 is currently produced at Keystone and at Sikor-sky’s Stratford, Conn. plant. As part of a phased schedule, more S-76 production will be gradually transferred to Keystone this year. Through the middle of last month, Keystone had produced nine
S-76C++s. All S-76Ds will be produced there and Keystone’s production certificate contains a letter of authorization allowing it to add specific S-76 variants, according to Ford.

To keep production activities and repair-station work physically separated, Keystone has leased a 30,000-sq-ft plant near its Heliplex dedicated to new aircraft production. The building houses all S-76 production as well as some final assembly work on the S-92, including the joining of various fuselage components made by a diverse team of international suppliers.

The S-92 fuselages are then trucked to Stratford, where the engines, gearboxes and rotors are added. That work will move to Keystone by the end of next year.
Ford said construction will start soon on a new flight hangar and production facility on the Heliplex campus that should be completed within 18 months. Construction will begin on a new flight hangar this fall. The 60,000-sq-ft facility will also contain a customer delivery center that will segregate aircraft. Next year, a separate 150,000-sq-ft building will be constructed to house final aircraft assembly and material warehousing. That building will be completed before S-76D serial production begins in 2010, Ford said.

Keystone continues to recruit additional employees to accommodate new production, but Ford acknowledges that “it is a difficult market out there” when it comes to finding the right people. “It’s a seller’s market for skilled aviation technicians. Staffing has been the most daunting task.”

In response to the challenge, Keystone has established its own training academy and is recruiting candidates from the sheet metal, machinery and automotive industries. “We’re looking more for aptitude than actual experience,” Ford said. Candidates complete a three-month training class and then move to the shop floor to gain experience with mentors so as “not to burden our existing production people with trainees,” Ford said. “Essentially, we have come to the conclusion that for many jobs, we will have to grow our own employees” as opposed to finding ready-made candidates.

Staffing up began last year, and Keystone hopes to add 200 technicians and engineers this year and another 200 next year. The additions will result in a total payroll of more than 1,000–quite an increase from 1995, when the company employed only 100.

New Procedures Implemented
The rapid growth has also forced Keystone to expand its management team to keep pace, and the company has relied on Sikorsky’s parent, United Technologies (UT), to provide some key new managers and executives. Ford said Keystone has also adopted UT management and process programs, including a continuous improvement program.

Typically as a company grows through 300 to 500 employees it tends to be a people-centric organization, says Ford, “but above that threshold you need to transition to a more process-centric organization so you can keep quality standards at the same high level. The overall experience of our workforce is not as high as it was five years ago” due to the company’s rapid growth. “So we supplement that with robust processes and procedures so we can be assured that every aircraft is assembled and tested the same, no matter who is at the end of the wrench.”

Ford emphasized that the new helicopter production will not adversely affect Keystone’s existing engine and airframe MRO business, which currently accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the company’s activity. “We just completed a $250,000 renovation of our MRO hangar and we are refocusing that business,” Ford said. The refocus includes building more value-added activity, including engineering services, high-end and complex refurbishments, and developing retrofit options kits.

Ford sees MRO business growing in the long term. “At some point, new helicopter production is going to plateau. Those aircraft are going to come out of the warranty period and need lifecycle maintenance.”