HURST (CBSDFW.COM) - The newest commercial machine currently under design at Bell Helicopter in Hurst is new in so many ways.
First off, The Relentless 525 will be "fly-by-wire" - in other words, there are all electronic controls (no wire cables) to physically move the airship in flight. Bell perfected fly-by-wire in their military attack helicopters (contracts for the armed services represent more than half of their business). It was building for the military that made Bell famous, the "Huey" built for the Vietnam War made them world leaders in their field.
Fly-by-wire means a computer sits between the pilots hand control and the rudders. Helicopters are notoriously difficult to control, the computer system on the Relentless handles some of the control demands so the pilot can keep his/her mind on the situtation. A perfect example is for the company (PHT) that has already committed to buying the Relentless: landing in strong open ocean winds onto a moving oil platform.
"In those most austere environments where you really need that situational awareness and ability to control the aircraft that is where fly by wire really earns it keep" said Larry Thimmesh, vice president of Bell's commercial division.
The helicopter has the latest in technology. The cockpit is "all-glass" which means there are no gauges but instead L-E-D displays that merges control and navigation. The displays can be customized to the situation like flying around storms or moving up into a canyon.
Because of the fly-by-wire system Bell was able to move the controls. They are two handles on each side of the pilot that have replaced the traditional center stick. This improves visibility up front and control.
The helicopter is bigger, the configuration in the mock up (the picture above is how the Relentless will look like, it is not a flying model) carrys 16 people plus cargo. It's category is called "super-medium", a niche Bell has never tried to compete in. It has a long range, over 400 miles, a real plus to reach the deep water rigs out in the gulf. It also goes faster, over 160mph so it can get to distant locations in shorter times.
It isn't what Bell wanted to build. It is what their customers wanted Bell to build.
"We really believe we'll win in the market by understanding our customer requirements better than our competition. Really focusing on what those future needs are and bringing that new technology to bear for future needs" said Timmesh.
The Relentless is a helicopter born from a new business model, replacing one that was followed by Bell for over 75 years. They built the Relentless from the ground up by first asking what the customer wanted in a next generation helicopter. Then everyone in the chain, from customers, designers, engineers, production managers to Bell's maintenance experts, keep a hand in the design.
Advances in 3D modeling, teleconferencing and faster internet speeds have webbed everyone together. Keeping everyone working on the initial design creates better efficiency in the production and maintenance of the new airship.
As common sense as that sounds it is not how many aerospace projects are run. Traditional it has been a linear process. Advances in material, avionics or engines would produce an idea. The aero-engineers would (usually) work in secret to come up with a design. Then they hand it over to Production. In other words "this is what we want you to make, figure out the best way to make it". And on the end use, you tell the maintenance staff (servicing what they have sold is a huge segment of Bell's revenue) how to teach themselves the best way to take care of it ("it is your job to work around the problems the design created").
"It really makes sense to bring them up front because a new program is really about learning, it's a journey of learning the sooner you can learn, the faster you can learn the more mature the product will be and the better the product will be for the customers," Timmesh told CBS 11.
There are no pre-orders of the Relentless, a business practice that is unheard of in the industry. Bell says they are confident that this helicopter is what their clients want to buy. After all, they did not even start designing the machine until their client base told them exactly that.
They are building a new world headquarters at their Hurst site. They are moving their separate campuses dotted around Fort Worth to Hurst and centralizing their teams. The future for Bell is team integration during the design to produce a final product that the customer asked for. New technology, new business model, new helicopter. After 75 years... a new Bell.
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