Airbus Helicopter is investing in digital analysis to take it to the next level of customer support
The Airbus Helicopter work ethic is currently epitomised by its new engineering facility. “Don’t call it a building,” said Rémi Maillard, VP chief engineer development helicopters rather proudly, as he guided a group of international journalists around the new engineering facility during a pre-Heli-Expo visit in late February. “This is a tool for us to use,” he asserted, almost challenging us to disagree with him.
Leaving aside this mild eccentricity, he went on to explain the management’s attitude to project problem solving involved bringing together a selected group of individual engineers from various backgrounds to ‘work the problem’ for as little as a week, or a maximum of around three months. This is not the core defeleopment team, but a group with the specific task of exploring one aspect of development. “It doesn’t matter if they initially fail,” said Maillard, “because we always learn and push our understanding forward. If we need to we can then reform the team with other individuals who can push it forward again.” Having seen one such group – all looking young and eager – it seemed to be a policy that would surface results quickly.
Airbus Helicopter is certainly moving forward. Guillaume Feury, the company’s chief executive officer, told journalists earlier that day: “We have increased our civil market share. Inspite of our difficulties, we continue to invest in products – you will see what we do in the military and commercial UAVs [VSR700 unmanned naval rotorcraft] as well as City Airbus.”
Feury emphasised that “digital is a priority for us – the way that we integrate digital technology into support and services. The HCare offer is more and more based on connectivity and digital tools. We are moving towards simplified, digital maintenance. The Helionix equipped fleet is allowing us to collect data while allows us to better understand the flight profile of the helicopters. It is the beginning of a new era for us.
HCare: a work in progress
Airbus Helicopter launched its HCare customer service package just over two years ago at the helicopter industry’s annual gathering Heli-Expo, that year staged in Orlando, Florida.
The concept was defined as a way to offer reliability and precise commitments to service that could be guaranteed to customers worldwide.
HCare is essentially defined by three offerings: Easy – focusing on the parts catalog and open to all customers; Smart, a by-the-hour support solution; and Infinite, providing an all inclusive maintenance service.
Leap forward two years and today Mathieu Louvot, executive vice president for Airbus Helicopter’s Customer Support and Services, said that in a competitive market Airbus has looked to simplify the services on offer. Talking to Aviation Maintenance at Airbus Helicopter’s French headquarters in Marignane, he emphasised on several occasions the slogan associated with this strategy: “HCare – important to you; essential to us.” With the oil industry operating at a relatively low ebb, and the grounding of the H225 civil fleet following the tragic accident in Norway back in April 29, 2016, support and services has become a very important revenue line in Airbus Helicopter’s balance sheet.
“With HCare Smart, we have removed exclusions and conditions. We have also scaled back the contract commitment from a minimum annual flight hour requirement of 150 hours to 100 hours. We removed the buy-in requirement for new owners of H125/H130 helicopters. We reduced prices on all the light single and twin-helicopters to be more aggressive in the market. The performance commitment meant that in 48 hours customers received a standard exchange of all the components covered by the power-by-the-hour (PBH).”
The HCare Easy conditions were also improved: “We have broadened the scope of exchange to 80 percent of standard exchange stock. We also have HCare Easy Repair where a customer’s repair will be completed in a maximum of 45 days whatever happens. If Airbus is late we offer a standard exchange of the part to the same standard which covers most hydraulic and avionic components although it might take a little longer for transmissions.” While this has been rolled out in Europe and North America the next region to be addressed will be Asia later this year.
Louvot said that the HCare Infinite service, where Airbus takes care of everything from maintenance including the engine through to components, has been selected not only by the German military for the Army pilot training centre at Buckeburg in Germany where they operate H135s in a training role, but also with Australian Army aviation for the Tiger attack helicopter and MRH-90 fleets. The new British military rotorcraft training fleet with their H135 Juno have also taken the Infinite package. Louvot added. The U.S. Army’s UH-72A Lakota helicopter fleet arrangement is mainly concerned with the guaranteed parts service, he said.
“Generally we are in a growth trend for services and support; it is a large part of the company and we need to keep it competitive while offering a strong service,” said Louvot. Indeed support and services continue to be a growth market as the worldwide helicopter fleet increases. To stay competitive services such as HCare together with data analysis is beginning to reduce costs for operators. “This year we reduced the direct maintenance cost of the H135 by 15 percent, and the H125 by seven percent,” declared Louvot. We have also been able to extend the time before overhaul of the main dynamic components and remove some safety life limits of components used by both types of helicopter.
“The MRO model is well developed and we need more customers to engage with the HCare products. We have actually substantially increased participation particularly among light-twin operators, moving from around 11 percent of the fleet to around 15-16 percent.”
The Airbus Transition
In the first decade of the new millennium, Airbus Helicopter (then Eurocopter) was mainly concerned with launching new products. Hardly a year seemed to pass when ex-CEO Lutz Bertling was announcing the launch of a new helicopter. As Louvot pointed out: “There was a great deal of focus launching new models around 2010. We were in full design and development of the H175 and H-160 – they were to be the new models of the fleet.”
But there was a sea-change too in an increased emphasis towards service and support. In 2013, the company headed in the direction of quality and safety, customer satisfaction and competitiveness and that has been the focus since. We now have a blananced approach between launching new projects and obtaining the full trust of our customers by delivering on the fundamental commitment of keeping them safe in flight.
Of course there have been several tragic accidents, with the civil H225 largely in the spotlight. To balance the reputation of that particular type, military users including the French Air Force have flown their EC725 Caracal’s hard in several operational theatres, and the British Puma Mk2’s are on long term deployment in Afghanistan.
Louvot spoke keenly about the introduction of Helionix and the impact that it will have through the introduction of data analytics which will hugely improve the company’s service and support capabilities. Helionix is a new avionics system includes a centralized maintenance function that monitors the status of all the helicopter’s sub-systems.
“We introduced the online viewer ORION in 2014 and since then we have been working to continually improve the online experience. We went from a pdf viewer to a hypertext viewer which allows the customer to navigate through job cards much more easily,” he said. ORION (Optimized Reader for Internet and Other Networks) is part of the Keycopter customer portal which was first rolled out for the H130.
“The next step is to get from a tech manual view to a real digital assistant,” he stated. This will encompass the preparation of service checks, the collation of job cards, and the identification and ordering of parts in advance through a bespoke online system, not to mention giving engineers the ability to engage in e-troubleshooting. Louvot said that this wasn’t the adoption of technology for its own sake, but a real step forward in making the maintenance process easier for the engineer.
“The industry has still to make a lot of progress on safety,” Louvot pointed out. He said that good safety culture had to be “driven by proper execution of maintenance added to the continual monitoring of the airworthiness of each and every platform. He admitted that today’s manual job card centric working practises are complex and time consuming.
I recall the old joke about a helicopter comprising of thousands of parts flying in close formation, but this actually serves to emphasise the experience needed for engineers to be constantly vigilant and at the top of their game when it comes to maintenance procedures and safety.
Louvot makes the point of today’s maintaniners having to write down 16-part numbers time and again with the obvious opportunity to make mistakes. “While large operators have a system for this, many of the smaller operators of one, two or three aircraft do not,” he said.
“Our digital strategy is to make life more simple for the customer, meaning that we take the data where they are.
He said that the ambition is to provide maintainers with the ability to use tech manuals and maintenance procedures digitally, whether through laptop or iPAD. “We want to take the data from the aircraft and link it to the tech manuals or operator’s maintenance system – and do all the cross checkings through the computer rather than manually. That is what drives our digitisation of tech manuals with software such as Fleet Keeper.”
With Fleet Keeper “you start the clock [data analytics] when you set off and stop it when you land. All the numbers are then computed and can be loaded into your maintenance system, or invoicing system. It provides full tracability of the life of the aircraft which is invaluable for lessors and owners, especially when they want to sell the aircraft.” It can also trigger part orders and maintenance requirements which improves the availability of the aircraft.
Rolling out Helionix into the new HSeries of helicopters is the start of this digital evolution. “We want to use Helionix starting with H175, the H145, the H135 as well as the H160 when it enters production,” said Louvot. “Helionix produces a lot of interesting data when it is downloaded from the aircraft and will allow us to do increasingly deeper analysis. We want to extend and enrich the HUMS services and take it to a wider range of customers outside the oil and gas industry. We want to help customers avoid aircraft-on-ground (AOG) and move them to a much more reactive and predictive maintenance environment where parts can be ordered before they are physically required.”
“3D printing is a good thing that would allow us to quickly produce ‘erratic references’ that are rarely required and often difficult to produce. These are parts that are frequently not stored in warehouse,” said Louvot.
The challenge of 3D printing is to certify the fast manufacturing of ‘these erratic references’. “We need to qualify the process in a generic way which would allow us to manage fast manufacturing. This concerns the type of part number that is ordered once every five years.”
All these long term parts make up a substantial number of spare part orders, but they are infrequent. because we have so many references. “If 3D manufacturing can help with the production of these parts on demand and reduce the lead time it would be of huge benefit to us and to the customers,” concluded Louvot.
When asked to summarise the road ahead for Airbus service and support, Louvot said that there was always a constant drive to improve customer satisfaction and service: “We will make our tech manuals easier to read and navigate. Digital products have a lot to contribute to the future.” Indeed, throughout aviation it is a constant theme that data collection and analysis will drive improvements to maintenance both in time and money with a significant impact on AOG reduction due to unserviceability.