By Eric Peterson | Mar 21, 2022
Fort Worth / Amarillo, Texas
Bell needs no introduction. The company has written the book on helicopter innovation and manufacturing in the decades since Larry Bell founded the company in 1935.
Past is prologue, as Bell looks to the next chapter: Future Vertical Lift (FVL). The stalwart Texas manufacturer is developing cutting-edge technology to modernize aviation for the U.S. Army.
Biggs says "speed and range" are the cornerstones of FVL. "Tiltrotor vertical lift allows you to get in and out in a hurry," he explains. "You can get on wings and cover a lot of ground. That is right up our alley. Getting into these really tough spots to get people out of harm's way is a big part of our mission."
As of 2022 -- 80 years after Bell's first helicopter's maiden flight in 1942 -- the company's Manufacturing Technology Center (MTC) in Fort Worth is the nerve center for FVL R&D.
The 140,000-square-foot facility opened its doors in March 2021 with Biggs at the helm. "I've been at Bell for 37 years," says Biggs. "I spent the first decade in their engineering test labs in research and development. I went into manufacturing with the V-22 back in '95."
From there, he's been involved in a number of programs in the company's manufacturing and the supply chain. "The last 10 years, I've been working on business strategy, and most recently, I created the manufacturing innovation team about five years ago. We're responsible now for creating manufacturability and producibility across all of our future platforms."
At the MTC, Biggs leads a team of 100 colleagues working on all things FVL. "It's dedicated to our most critical processes and our most critical parts, so anything related to drive systems, rotor systems, primary structures, and all of the technology we work with," says Biggs, dubbing the MTC as "the proving grounds" for new technologies before they go into production.
He outlines the two major military programs that are the centerpiece of the center's work: "Future Vertical Lift consists of FLRAA, the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft for the Army, and FARA, which is our Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft." Bell's entry to the FLRAA competition is the V-280 Valor, and the 360 Invictus is competing for the FARA contract.
Biggs says both helicopters leverage Bell's long history of manufacturing military helicopters that started full-force with the Huey family in the 1960s. "That allows us to do things that a lot of other companies don't do in this space," he explains. "The technologies that went into the V-22 are pretty marvelous, but what we did back in the '80s and '90s is a lot different than the technology of today. We've taken the lessons from all of those aircraft, including the V-22, and are rolling them into things we can do differently now with the V-280."
"Materials are really the key of all of this innovation, as well as coatings," adds Biggs. "If you think about metallics and composites, any advanced material investment we can make with our industrial base that improves weight, performance, and manufacturability, that's not always just about the design, it's also about the cost."
And to deploy innovations seamlessly across a broad, notably complex product line, Bell is leveraging disparate divisions through technology. "We've joined forces with our IT and systems folks to integrate our scheduling of the digital design and modeling information in terms of the manufacturing process," notes Biggs. "The MTC's job is to go take those things that are driving costs and go work with them . . . so when we get to production or are doing different programs, we're not having to do one-for-one additions of capital. That's a big part of what we're trying to do."
This kind of innovation doesn't happen overnight. The Army's current timeline calls for deploying the first FLRAA units around 2030 after a competition for the contract mid-2022. Flight tests for FARA are slated for late 2023.
Beyond the military applications, Bell leadership projects the FVL innovations that emerge from the MTC will inform the design of the company's commercial aircraft. "We're figuring out the best ways to make blades or gears or whatever, and we're doing that in the context of any future vehicle," says Biggs, largely due to a notably thorough qualification process for rotorcraft. "If you want to change a material or you want to change the way you build that part, you have to go get it requalified."
Bell's military manufacturing is centered in Amarillo with R&D (the commercial manufacturing facility is in Quebec) with engineering largely at the headquarters of Fort Worth. The company has been a subsidiary of Textron (NYSE: TXT) since 1960.
The manufacturing locales the V-280 Valor and the 360 Invictus are yet to be determined as of early 2022. "Going forward we haven't made the final decisions on where these factories will be," says Biggs. "It will take a few years for that to flesh itself out. The big thing for us is controlling the most critical components."
"We know the most about those things, and if there's an opportunity or challenge to face, we know how to face it," he adds. "Our secondary systems and some of the other systems we buy from our supply chain, but the most critical we try to control every aspect of those."
Challenges: Biggs highlights a primary challenge at the MTC: adapting Bell to a new paradigm driven by digital integration of design and manufacturing. He says it's about mastering the thorny task of "being able to connect digitally the environment of the factory, the sensors on the equipment, a digital model of the aircraft that's driving the manufacturing program, and the quality validation to close some of those loops -- and to be able to predict when you're going to get into some trouble."
Opportunities: Bell's FVL program has vast potential in both defense and commercial aerospace, says Biggs, highlighting another opportunity to boost Bell's overall manufacturing model.
"For us, when we see big breakthroughs, it's because of an advanced material and an advanced manufacturing system coming together to solve the same problem," he explains. "When those two things are working together, you get improvements in the flying product as well as the ability to deliver it."
Needs: "It's definitely the talent pipeline," says Biggs. "We're trying to change the way people think about manufacturing, and to do that, we're trying to get them from an analog kind of mindset to a digital space. . . . Finding people who have that mindset around the 3D model and the power of that data not going to a document has been a bit of a challenge."