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In late July, Bell Helicopter officially opened a new 150,000-square-foot customization building at its facility in Piney Flats, Tennessee, providing the plant with an expanded capability to complete and customize over 200 aircraft a year.
The facility serves as the last link in the delivery chain to the customer, receiving “green” aircraft from Bell’s assembly plants and customizing them to meet customer specification before delivery. It also serves as a maintenance, repair and overhaul service center for about 80 helicopters in the region, has a component repair and overhaul facility, and is home to Bell’s Aeronautical Accessories brand (which has about 4,000 options for accessories).
Prior to the expansion, the customization value streams (light, intermediate, or medium helicopters) were located in separate buildings around the campus and mixed in with the other services at the plant. Now, all customizing operations are together under one roof.
It was a two-year process to convert an existing warehouse and fully establish the customization operations there, with the company’s light helicopters the first to be brought in about a year ago. Once Bell had refined its processes, the medium and intermediate product lines were brought in.
“All three value streams are up and running today,” Chad Nimrick, general manager for Bell Helicopter’s U.S. sites, told Vertical. “For the most part, our processes and procedures are working, there’s still a few refinements here and there. We also implemented a new ERP [enterprise resource planning] system as well, during this process. So we kind of did it all at the same time. It added a bit to the pain, but I think it’ll pay dividends very quickly.”
Bell has other customization facilities around the globe, but Piney Flats completes about three quarters of the company’s customization work, which is completed as part of the aircraft sale to configure it to a customer’s mission profile.
“Unless we have a fleet deal, every aircraft that comes out of here is different in some form or fashion,” said Nimrick. “You may have a VIP customer that comes in that wants a very basic VIP kit with the standard Bell offerings and kits, and then the next customer comes in and would like that — but they would also like some place to mount their iPad, they want USB ports, they want LED lighting…. We can basically do anything that the customer wants.”
The balance of industry segments for which Bell is customizing the aircraft is pretty evenly split between emergency medical services, law enforcement, utility, and VIP, according to Nimrick.
He said turnkey service was the major benefit to the customer of choosing an OEM — rather than a third party — to complete their aircraft. “Being a part of the Bell Helicopter family and organization, we are able to really leverage all of the Bell Helicopter services,” said Nimrick. “Engineering is a big one, obviously — and as part of that engineering service we have about 34 engineers here on site dedicated to both our customizing operation and our manufacturing operation.”
The benefit to customers of the new facility will be faster turnaround times for completions, said Nimrick. “The key aspect is on the front end, where we’re really working diligently with the customer to get the configuration nailed down, so that we can then start our certification processes, our engineering processes, and our supply chain processes,” he said. “That’s key, because when those get disrupted throughout the completions and customizing value chain, it can disrupt our schedule and push delivery times out.”
It’s been a year of change in Bell’s customer support and services division, with the rebranding of the its site in south Florida as Bell Miami (formerly known as Edward Rotorcraft Solutions), following the launch of its Customer Advantage Plans (CAPs) at HAI Heli-Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, in March.
Nimrick said the CAPs have been taken up by a few smaller customers, and that Bell was in negotiation with “several large operators” about implementing them in their fleets. “From our perspective, that is where our customer support is going to be evolved to,” he said. “We really feel very strongly about that and we believe it’s a differentiator for those customers to get on these plans and then have Bell Helicopter support through the lifecycle of their aircraft from day one.”