Ever since I was a little boy I have been interested in helicopters - one of the most complex and intriguing flying vehicles. In my opinion, developing a reliable and safe rotorcraft is on the leading edge of engineering. Naturally, I was very excited when Randall Willnow, Manager of Engineering Labs, Materials and Processes at Bell Helicopter agreed to answer a few questions. I could talk about their aircraft forever, but for brevity's sake I stuck to more high-level questions.
Bell Helicopter is a division of Textron and an American rotorcraft manufacturer headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. The company was founded in 1935 and has delivered more than 35,000 aircraft to date.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I began working for Bell in 1994 in the Mechanical Systems Test Lab as a test engineer where for 11 years I designed test fixtures and conducted structural testing on V-22 Osprey and BA609 Civilian Tiltrotor components. During that period, my biggest accomplishment was probably the design and build of the test fixture and successful static test of the BA609 full scale fuselage, where I was the first one to pressurize a Bell 609 Helicopter cabin.
What does the engineering organization at Bell look like?
Engineering at Bell consists of a functional, or core, organization that supports, or deploys engineering resources to program development teams. Currently, our largest program teams are working on the development of two new commercial helicopters (505 Jet Ranger X short light single and 525 Relentless super medium transport), a new military tiltrotor (V-280 Valor) and the support of the production V-22 Osprey tiltrotor and the H-1 Huey and Cobra helicopters.
How are you collaborating between teams and locations? How do you ensure that collaboration remains smooth and seamless?
Bell Helicopter is a global organization with locations all over the world. The engineering organization is based out of Fort Worth, Texas. We also have a large contingent of engineers at our Mirabel, Quebec, Canada facility, where we produce most of our commercial helicopters. Collaboration is mostly managed through our core organization. We primarily manage communication through email, telephone and video, and software tools like Microsoft Lync and Sharepoint and Dassault Systems.
How do you keep up with the market demands - customers who want better products faster, competition, extremely complex product etc.? How do you develop high quality products in spite of these challenges?
We are always looking for ways to increase the throughput of technology and manufacturing readiness. Advances in software products have helped speed the transition from the design to the build. We are using the latest CATIA product to create what we call a Digital Product Definition (DPD) where the three dimensional design model, with no drawing, is used to convey the part requirements, which in instances like 3D printing physically makes the part.
How are you using 3D printing?
We have a 3D printing laboratory that has been in use since the early 1990s, mostly for rapid prototyping, conceptual models and mock-ups, and for tooling needs. In 2007 Bell Helicopter was the first aerospace company to approve a new nylon material for production of flight worthy parts using additive manufacturing. Currently we have about 400 discrete 3D printed parts on three of our commercial aircraft. The parts include components of the environmental control systems and some wiring conduits. Bell is looking at the advantages of using 3D printed parts for fabrication of non-metallic spare parts. 3D printing should be able to provide quality parts with very short delivery time and considerable savings.
We will be working with companies like Stratasys to find more applications for 3D printing and to mature additive manufacturing processes so we can start printing parts. As the technologies mature we should start seeing the production of structural components.
Can you talk about the latest innovation achievements at Bell Helicopter?
The accelerated development of our newest aircraft the 505 Jet Ranger X has to fit right up there. The Bell 505 team has challenged many of the conventional contemporary means of developing a new helicopter. Rather than sit in an engineering office space, they sequestered the team in a hanger, similar to the garage that Arthur Young and his five person team used to develop Bell Helicopter’s first helicopter, the Model 30. It has been amazing to see the team set very aggressive goals and meet them. When they unveiled the Jet Ranger X at HeliExpo in February 2012 the team said they would fly by the end of 2014, and they recently achieved that goal with the first flight on November 10, 2014. The 525 Relentless Super Medium Transport aircraft is going to be spectacular and has many highly innovative features, most notably that it will be the first commercial fly-by-wire helicopter.
What is the single most important piece of advice you'd like to give to young people dreaming about becoming an engineer in the aerospace industry?
If you are interested in the aerospace industry become a part of the community. When I am reviewing resumes of applicants I always like to see membership in associations like the American Helicopter Society (AHS) or the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). It is easy to get involved because most associations have regional sections and meetings and most universities have school chapters.
What do you look for in a candidate who wants to join the team?
The ideal engineering candidate for Bell Helicopter will bring a broad and diverse background of experience. We are looking to get our engineers experience in operations, quality, and customer support in order to help them understand the entire value stream of our products.
Thank you for this short interview and carry on engineering great helicopters!
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