As an original equipment manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron Canada has an advantage when it comes to hiring. "There are 40,000 aerospace workers in the Montreal area, but we are all growing at the same time," says Michel LeGaulle, director, business development. "As an OEM we are at the top of the food chain, but our suppliers have more difficulty, and their problem is our problem."

All of Bell's commercial helicopters are produced in Canada, and floor space at the facility near Montreal's Mirabel airport has increased by 20% in the last 18 months. Last year, the workforce grew by 200 people to 2,200 employees.

The growth is fuelled by an upswing in demand for helicopters ranging from the light single-turbine 206B-3 to the 412 medium twin. Bell delivered 153 commercial helicopters last year and booked orders for 402, led by these two types, boosting the Mirabel plant towards forecast deliveries for 2010 in the 225-275 range.

The Canadian company is also developing the new Bell 429 light twin, orders for which already exceed 190 units. The first of five test aircraft flew in late February, with certification and first deliveries scheduled for 2008-9. Demand is such that cancellation of the 417 light single will have "no negative impact", LeGaulle says.

All this activity is stressing the company's supply chain. "We are trying to reduce the overall number of suppliers and work with larger companies with more financial weight, who can design parts and bring them to us," he says. This is a challenge in Montreal, and across Canada, where the majority of suppliers are small companies.

"We are looking for companies that can put a couple of million dollars into product development and wait five years for the benefits to come. That's not a 50-person shop, that's a company with 300-400 people," says LeGaulle. There are exceptions, and he cites Placeteco, a private firm with 50-60 employees in Shawnigan, Quebec.

In February, Placeteco won a five-year, C$2.5 million contact to design and produce the 429's composite interior. "They teamed with an engineering company and found the money. They won't have to wait five years, but it will be up to a year before they see the first cheque," he says.

The company has supplied interior parts to Bell for 12 years, but this is its first integrated product.

"We teamed with engineering firm Ellison Technology, submitted a proposal to take over responsibility for the 429 interior, competed with another supplier and won a five-year contract," says general manager Serge Framcoeur. Placeteco is creating a small engineering department and will add 10-11 employees year for production. "It was not easy to find capital, but we found what we were looking for," he says.

Source: Flight International