FARNBOROUGH 2008: Clear as a Bell

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Dick Millman has a clear vision for continued success at Bell Helicopter: Increase production capacity; remain number one in customer service; ensure a balance between military and commercial orders and create a learning culture throughout the business. Paul Derby reports

Dick Millman has presided over Bell for a little short of 18 months since taking the reins from Mike Redenbaugh. He has been quick to tackle some of the fundamentals; rationalising the commercial product line to generate additional manufacturing capacity and dealing with development issues on the ARH-70A, the US Army’s new armed reconnaissance helicopter.

Now, looking ahead to his first Farnborough as Bell CEO, Millman is positive about Bell’s position, both in terms of products and people. “If you look at both commercial and military, we are well balanced. We have the 429 here, the BA609 tiltrotor is flying at Farnborough and we are making progress on key programmes for the US military.”

 
 © Bell Helicopters

President of Textron Systems before his appointment at Bell and prior to that enjoying a 20-year career with Avco, Millman says the intellectual capability of Bell impressed him from the outset: “We have more smart people in this business than anywhere else. We have also added a handful of senior executives to strengthen the team during the past 12 months. If you look at the companies I have run over the past 20 years they have always valued innovation – the ability to deliver things that nobody else has done. We will do the same thing here.”

This reference to the importance of innovation and technology to the future of Bell underscores Millman’s commitment to XworX – Bell’s concept development and rapid prototyping facility in Texas, which is home to future programmes such as the Quad Tiltrotor and will play a vital role in delivering next generation products. “We want to bring even more focus to the areas of technological development and technology insertion,” he says.

Bell’s customer service reputation is one of its underlying strengths, having been named number one for customer satisfaction by Professional Pilot magazine for the 14th straight year: “That’s something we won’t give up easily,” Millman says. “There is always room for improvement, but we’re proud of the achievement.”

His experience in the wider Textron family of companies is being brought to bear at Bell, in particular his determination to embed a culture of learning and constant improvement within the Bell team. Millman harks back to a 2001 decision by parent Textron to become less of a holding company and to create a “network enterprise” across its business units.

“Textron has an extremely diverse make-up,” says Millman. “As well as Bell and Cessna there are industrial businesses and financial services expertise. We saw the opportunity to share better what we learned in developing a new product or process across all our businesses and recognised the powerful opportunities that presented.

“A learning organisation shares knowledge and learns lessons from what it does well and what it has missed. I felt that Bell had not embraced some of these processes fully, so we’ve been working hard to embed the culture since I arrived. I see improvements now both in terms of efficiency and also in our people’s engagement. Everyone knows what is expected of them and that means we are able to deliver a better service to our customers and to our shareholders.”

The 429, Bell’s new entrant for the medium twin market, is due for certification at the end of 2008. Millman points to record levels of pre-certification orders as evidence of the aircraft’s market appeal: “The market acceptance for the 429 has been superb. We have more than 330 orders and I believe that is more than we have had for any aircraft at this stage of development. We’re over 1,000 hours in flight test, we’re learning from that process, but essentially we are on track.”

Bell says orders for the 429 are split between EMS operators, law enforcement in the US and internationally and VIP customers. There are currently three aircraft in the flight test programme.

dick millman bell helicopters  

The company’s decision to re-focus its commercial product line on the 206L4, 407, 412 and 429 was based on market feedback, but has also helped to create additional manufacturing capacity. On the military side Bell has significant pressures to deliver, both on the ARH programme and the H-1 upgrade programme for the US Marine Corps (USMC).

The decision to relocate final assembly and the militarisation for the ARH-70A to Fort Worth from Mirabel in Canada was a key decision in improving the efficiency of the programme. The US Army briefly halted the programme in 2007 citing cost and schedule overruns.

Millman says: “What we have been able to do is put all the right people together in one place – the engineers, the production guys and the quality team, all in one building. The militarisation changes are significant.” Bell expects low rate initial production (LRIP) of the ARH-70A to begin next year.

On the H-1 programme for the USMC Bell has now delivered 10 LRIP aircraft – seven UH-1Ys and three AH-1Zs. The programme, to replace the existing UH-1N utility and AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter fleet, was originally based on remanufacturing airframes, but the USMC switched to new-build UH-1Ys and the final 40 AH-1Zs will also be new build. These aircraft will also have the uprated General Electric T700-401C engine integrated.

“We expect to ramp up to 28 aircraft a year over the next few years,” Millman explains. “The initial operating capability for the –Ys will be this year.”

With Bell Boeing’s V-22 military tiltrotor now seeing active service in Iraq, demand from the US military remains extremely high. The Bell Boeing team signed a $10.4 billion five-year procurement contract for 167 V-22 Ospreys in March, with 141 MV-22s destined for the USMC and 26 CV-22s on order for the US Air Force Special Operations Command.

Bell Boeing expects to hit its current maximum production rate in three years’ time and Millman confirms interest from overseas governments in becoming the first international customer for the V-22. “Conversations have already taken place,” he says, “but in the short term we have a significant challenge to meet existing US military order book. We do plan to extend our capacity beyond what’s required by the current multi-year agreement."