Visitors to Niagara Falls need only look skyward to see four Airbus H130 Helicopters providing tourists with spectacular aerial views of the magnificent wonder. But did you know that about half of the S helicopters delivered in Canada over the last 15 years come from their facility in Fort Erie, Ontario?

In more than 150 countries, Airbus Helicopters serves 3,000 customers in areas such as military missions, emergency medical services, law enforcement, firefighting and mining. A division of Airbus, the global leader in aeronautics, space and defence, it has not only survived a major downturn in the aerospace industry, but has prospered, doubling the size of the facility in 2008 and significantly growing its composite manufacturing.

The only Canadian Subsidiary to produce composites

"We continuously develop our talent and leverage our capabilities to increase market share," says Romain Trapp, COO of Airbus Helicopters North America. "For example, three years ago, 30% of our 250 employees were working on export products; now, it is 50%." Created 33-years ago, Airbus Helicopters Canada is part of the world's largest helicopter manufacturer and Airbus' only subsidiary to produce composites.

Trapp points out that the parent company's confidence in AHCA's capabilities and efficiencies has led to major strides in the business. "We won the composite manufacturing business over 12 competing suppliers worldwide, and were selected as the Canadian centre of excellence for dynamic components in repairs and maintenance." AHCA is committed to using Ontario suppliers whenever possible. Airbus as a whole sourced over 409 Million CAD in goods and services from Ontario in 2015.

Composites in the future

Of the 138,000 sq. ft. of the Fort Erie facility, 50,000 are dedicated to manufacturing high-performance composite parts for seven helicopter models. These components include high-visibility doors, cargo pods, heating systems, cowlings, boarding steps and horizontal stabilizers. Airbus Helicopters H160 illustrates, that composites are key for the future; the first civil helicopter with a full composite airframe, is currently in development making it a ton lighter than others of its kind. Since it is used in offshore transportation, public services and commercial passenger transport, this opens up possibilities for carrying additional fuel and cargo without forfeiting performance.

An Airbus Helicopters Canada employee dimensioning a helicopter component.
An Airbus Helicopters Canada employee dimensioning a helicopter component.

Composites are a disruptive technology that are increasingly being used to make aircraft lighter and more fuel-efficient. Their properties also add to the safety and comfort of pilots and passengers, as well as prove more environmentally friendly than metal. Advantages include corrosion resistance, extra strength and reduced weight. For customers, this adds up to better performance and cost-competitiveness.

An Airbus Helicopters Canada employee using 3D modeling software.
An Airbus Helicopters Canada employee using 3D modeling software.

"We have more than 50 research projects on the go with Canadian partners," adds Trapp. "Designing, testing and developing composites is a long, arduous process that pays big dividends to our clients and the environment." An example of such eco-design now being tested is using natural flax fibres under hybrid composite materials.

To speed up development lead-time, AHCA uses onsite 3D printing for prototyping "because you can immediately see if you have an idea that's worth pursuing." For manufacturing, AHCA subcontracts the 3D printing to Burloak Technologies located in Dundas, Ontario. It can also draw upon any of the parent company's other cutting-edge technologies.

Ontario's human factor

"When you invest in Ontario, you know that you have the support of government and other partners to help you prosper," says Trapp.

Composites manufacturing is a labour-intensive undertaking since it requires unique skill sets. Unlike automotive plants that deal with vast volumes and are mostly mechanized, helicopter production facilities deal with fewer but more complex parts that demand highly qualified workers.

According to Trapp, people are the energy that powers the business – and Ontario is a good source for competent, efficient workers. The company recruits directly from universities and colleges, and has partnerships with those that specialize in the industry, like North Bay's Canadore College. AHCA is also working with Niagara College to digitize some composite tooling.

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