While international attention on Eurocopter mainly focuses on its headquarters in Marignane, near Marseille, the manufacturer is building up its second-largest facility in Donauwörth as a world-class helicopter development, production and aftermarket support hub.
The historic Swabian town with 18,000 souls, halfway between Munich and Nuremberg, has long been the centre of Germany's rotorcraft industry. The Bölkow Bo105 light twin and its larger sibling MBB/Kawasaki BK117 were manufactured on the site by the river Danube as part of national aerospace conglomerate Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm until it was taken over by automaker Daimler-Benz in 1989. Three years later, the Donauwörth operation was merged with its French and Spanish counterparts to form Eurocopter - long before a similar European integration took place with Airbus - and its two models evolved into today's EC135 and EC145.
Apart from the Columbus, Mississippi-based assembly line for the UH-72 Lakota - an EC145 derivative for the US Army - and a second EC135 production line at Albacete, Spain, Donauwörth is the central manufacturing location for the EC135 and EC145, as well as its respective military variants EC635 and EC645.
The site assembles the Tiger attack and NH Industries NH90 heavy transport helicopters for the German armed forces, and is the national support centre for a range of Bundeswehr rotorcraft by other manufacturers. This covers mid-life extension and combat improvement programmes for the Sikorsky CH-53, Westland Sea King and AgustaWestland Sea Lynx.
Eurocopter's main project at Donauwörth is currently the next-generation EC145 T2
Aircraft doors are another major product for Donauwörth and it manufactures about 65% of doors on all Airbus models except the A400M military transport, including passenger, cargo and emergency exit doors. Aside from its EADS sister company, the plant also supplies doors for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet.
While it employed around 3,500 staff a decade ago, this figure will rise to about 6,000 next year. Since 2000, 14 construction projects have been undertaken, including production halls for rotor blades and A350 doors, as well as a tower and flight operations facilities. The latest is a 30,000m2 (323,000ft2) research and development facility as part of the "Systemhaus" project. Its purpose is to concentrate all activities for the German-made models and relevant international programmes - from initial engineering to aftermarket support - at Donauwörth. This will involve moving about 900 employees from Eurocopter's R&D division, based at EADS's German headquarters in Ottobrunn, by March 2013, marking Eurocopter's complete withdrawal from the Munich suburb, where helicopter pioneer Ludwig Bölkow located its main office. However, Eurocopter will maintain its maintenance, repair and overhaul, and training facilities in Kassel, where it employs about 85 staff.
Donauwörth's main project at the moment is the next-generation EC145 T2. The prototype's first flight was in June 2010, with a second aircraft following in October 2011. Both helicopters have logged about 400 and 100 developmental flight hours respectively, including hot-and-high tests at Lake Havasu, Arizona and Leadville, Colorado, as well as cold-weather trials in Canada. Final approval flights will begin in 2013, says programme manager Dragos Grigorincu, with certification and deliveries due to follow towards the end of the year. However, starting the serial production will be a challenge: "We want to ramp up the assembly work already during the certification period, and not wait with that until approval has finally been granted."
The EC145 T2 will be manufactured on the same production line as the base model. Both types will be available until fabrication switches exclusively to the T2 generation "some time after 2014", says Grigorincu. This is to gauge demand for the new model, he adds, while some operators might still prefer the base version.
Eurocopter says it has "more than 70 orders" for the EC145 T2. At the moment, the type is being manufactured via a "turnoff" in the existing base-model assembly line. Grigorincu says there are several T2s in production, although he declines to specify how many. Last year, the airframer delivered about 80 EC145s and, from a separate production line, 70 EC135s.
The EC145 T2 differs from the baseline model mainly through its two Turbomeca Arriel 2E engines, which have been specifically designed for the type. Grigorincu says they will provide the helicopter with about 20% more installed power and deliver around 50% more power in one engine inoperative (OEI) conditions than on the baseline model.
The dual-channel full authority digital engine control (FADEC) unit will automatically increase power in one engine if the other fails. This should maintain the helicopter's full load capability in OEI situations, which is a requirement for helicopter emergency medical services in the EU.
The higher engine performance - and strain in OEI flight - also demanded a new main gearbox. Existing equipment has been upgraded via new tooth profiles, surface treatments, bearings, structural reinforcement and higher performance oil. However, the T2's direct maintenance costs are targeted to be 10% lower than its predecessor once the new type has been established in operation, which typically takes about five years, says Grigorincu.
The EC145 T2 will also feature a shrouded, multi-blade Fenestron tail rotor versus a conventional, open two-blade layout. This required a new empennage and a completely redesigned tail boom, all of which will be made of carbonfibre-reinforced plastic. Grigorincu says the components could not be taken from existing models with a Fenestron tail rotor, such as the EC135, but had to be specifically engineered for the EC145.
The EC135 will also be revamped during the next few years, says Eurocopter, although it is not yet clear whether this will involve a similarly extensive update as on the EC145. What is clear, however, is that - just as elsewhere in the aerospace industry - the balance between the manufacturer's commercial and military businesses is shifting further to the civilian arena.
Germany has ordered 80 Tigers and 122 NH90s, of which 26 and 24 respective helicopters have so far been delivered. But the remaining tally is likely to change given the Bundeswehr's structural reform package and programme delays for the two types, both of which have origins in the 1980s.
Eurocopter says it is negotiating with the German government and that order numbers may be "at disposition" - in other words, subject to change. Chief executive Lutz Bertling indicated earlier this year that Tiger orders could be converted to the NH90 as an option to avoid impact on the manufacturer if outstanding commitments were to be slashed. However, Eurocopter says an agreement has yet to be reached.
Whatever the outcome, the airframer needs more civilian work to sustain its future business. When Germany's minister for economics and technology Philipp Rösler visited the Donauwörth plant in July, Bertling revealed that a new helicopter, named X9, will be produced at the site for commercial customers. The manufacturer does not want to disclose details such as weight-class and timeline for the project yet, but a spokesman says the clean-sheet type will be offered in addition to the EC135 and EC145. Detailed evaluations and feasibility studies are to begin "after the summer".
Donauwörth is the EC135's central manufacturing location