Helicopter Rotor Blades Rely on Composites

Composites aerospace parts manufacturer Kaman Aerospace Corp., based in Connecticut, landed a $53 million contract with Texas-based Bell Helicopter, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., for helicopter blade materials.

According to Kevin Sewell, director of outsourcing and transitions at Bell Helicopters, composites were chosen not because they were less expensive than metal rotor blades, but because they are more reliable, repairable and have a longer life. Mark Tattershall, director of marketing and business development at Kaman, adds that composites also provide better ballistic protection, which is important in military operations.

Under the contract, Kamen will build composite helicopter blade skins and skin core assemblies for Bell. “The skin and skin-core components will make up the aft portion of our composite rotor blades,” says Sewell. “The skins are important because they bond to a composite spar assembly that makes up the structural leading edge of the rotor.”

Kaman will also provide 18 different assemblies for eight different helicopters, including Bell’s 412, 407, H-1 and OH-58D models, which will be used in a variety of settings. “Helicopters differ from some other aviation assets because they are used as integral parts of businesses. You’ll find them transporting offshore oil and gas workers, performing daily patrols for law enforcement and ferrying patients from an accident to a hospital,” explains Sewell.

Bell expects to receive its first production in early 2010. Once Bell receives the skin-cores, it will integrate them into existing motor blade manufacturing shortly after and begin delivering blades with Kaman components in the first half of 2010.

Get Your Foot in the Supply Chain Door

When you’re a big company like Northrop Aerospace Systems, you need an intricate supply chain to make business happen. But what is the chain like, and what is the role of composite companies in this network?

Lisa Kohl, vice president for global supply chain for Northrop, says there are about 1,500 companies in its supply chain and the type of companies within that network run the gamut, from procurement, subcontracting, design work, quality assurance, goods movement, transportation, and strategic sourcing.

So how do potential suppliers get in on the action? Start by submitting some basic information to Northrop, detailing services your company performs. “The only way a company gets turned down at this point is if Northrop already has enough suppliers doing the same exact thing as you. Otherwise, Northrop will perform an audit,” says Kohl. “We do a financial verification, which has been a big thing lately. We do a whole analysis and supplier assessment.”