In Army Helicopter Competitions, Sikorsky Says Factory Tech, 3D Printing Gives Them an Edge

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The CH-53K production line at the Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Connecticut (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin Sikorsky)

STRATFORD, Conn. : Automated tools. Additive manufacturing. Augmented reality. 3D printing.

Sikorsky’s production lines for several helicopters at its Stratford, Conn. plant feature all of these capabilities, which company executives say give them a competitive edge in their tense competition with Bell Textron to build the next generation of army helicopters, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. and the future long-range assault aircraft.

“We are implementing this today on the production line,” Sikorsky President Paul Lemmo told reporters last week during a tour of the plant.

Sikorsky greeted reporters in a bid to highlight the advanced tools the company is already using in its fabrication shop to manufacture the UH-60 Black Hawks and the new CH-53K, which recently reached Initial Operational Capability status. . The Sikorsky facility tour came weeks after Bell invited reporters in March to its Texas facility to showcase a slew of cutting-edge manufacturing it plans to install in its future plants. The not-so-subtle point: Sikorsky says they’re already using advanced techniques.

RELATED: “A recipe for parts”: Bell plans the factory of the future with FARA, FLRAA dreams

The CH-53K is the latest version of the Marines heavy lift helicopter. For this release, Sikorsky built what company officials called a “digital wire” rendering for the helicopter that ensures machines and workers refer to the same blueprints, from initial design through live production. through sustainment. Sikorsky officials said they believe already using the digital wire method on a current production line gives them a competitive advantage for future Army vertical lifting competition.

“We are pretty much done with the development of the 53K, we are in full production and we are already beginning efforts to keep the aircraft in the fleet. We prove this digital thread and all the tools that go with it,” Lemmo said. “I think we are well on this way. Now we are definitely looking to take it to the next level with FVL… We believe that because we have put it into practice we will be able to run FVL much more efficiently.

During a tour of the facility, journalists saw automated tools, augmented reality, three-dimensional work instructions, automated parts inspection, 3D printing of rotorcraft parts, simulators and modeling using supercomputers. (Breaking Defense, like other publications, accepted travel accommodation from Sikorsky for this tour and from Bell before.)

“We don’t need a lot of new investment for future vertical lift programs,” Lemmo said. “You know, it’s pretty much in the factory today or next year.”

Lemmo said new technologies that parent company Lockheed Martin has invested in have reduced production times and lowered costs.

Sikorsky has also invested in additive manufacturing capabilities, including 18 thermoplastic 3D printers. Bob Perchard, director of manufacturing engineering at Sikorsky, said the facility will receive two metal 3D printers by the end of the year.

Perchard said “hundreds” of parts on FARA and FLRAA will be 3D printed, including drive system and rotor system components.

As for the CH-53K, the Stratford plant will produce four aircraft this year, eight in 2023 and 16 in 2024. Sikorsky expects a full production decision in 2023.

Amid conflict in Ukraine, potential Black Hawk opportunities in Eastern Europe

Sikorsky’s 5,000th UH-60 Black Hawk will hit the production line in Stratford this year as the Army plans to end purchase of the legendary helicopter in fiscal year 2028, in favor of the FLRAA rotorcraft .

However, production of the FLRAA will not increase until the early 2030s. But without a production contract for Black Hawks during this time, Sikorsky would seek to fill the void with Black Hawk modernization in the coming decades and through the through foreign military sales, Lemmo said.

“Black Hawk is still very ubiquitous and in demand around the world,” he said.

Another potential factor for the future of the Black Hawk program is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which could present potential sales opportunities for the helicopter.

“It will be interesting to see, you know, in Eastern Europe, since a lot of them are flying Russian helicopters – they probably won’t get parts for those,” Lemmo said. “Will they turn west as these fleets run out? We would definitely like to suggest the Black Hawk as a potential solution there.

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