Rotorcraft Rookie: Robinson factory tour

March 13, 2014

Every pilot should visit at least one aircraft factory. It’s an opportunity to seriously geek out on all the cool stuff that is crammed into your metal, fiberglass, or carbon fiber box in the sky. I had the opportunity to take a tour at the Robinson factory in Torrance, Calif., during Helicopter Association International’s Heli-Expo, and it didn’t disappoint.

Robinson is the country’s second largest manufacturer of aircraft by volume behind only Boeing. Many aircraft manufacturers operate as final assembly lines, gathering parts from Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Europe, and elsewhere around the world, and then putting them together like Legos. A few take the opposite approach and build everything in-house. Step on to Robinson’s factory floor and its clear they believe strongly in the in-house approach.

Everything starts in receiving, where the company literally inventories steel rods and aluminum plates they will cut, bore, and polish to create parts for the helicopters. They source every material possible from the United States, including those raw metals.

From here the parts are made. Each one undergoes a different process. Some are cut with computer numerical control (CNC) machines; others are subjected to various tools that strengthen or coat the metal. Afterward every single part goes through quality control, where it is measured, tested, and either passed to go to assembly or failed and given to engineers to determine what to do next.

There’s an electrical room where employees create every wiring harness and build every panel by hand. The complicated schematics are posted on large boards with the wiring splayed out in every direction on top. To someone with only basic knowledge of volts and ohms it’s a headache-inducing maze. The people in the shop probably have it memorized.

The final assembly area is traditional. The helicopter moves down the line as the tail cone, engine, gearbox, and then metal and glass are added. The gearbox is one of the more interesting parts of the final assembly. Experienced employees sit at a dedicated table with all of the parts in front of them. After a thorough inventory they painstakingly assemble each piece. Assuming everything works properly the first time, the process takes two days. But if one of the parts is off or something doesn’t fit perfectly, it can take even more.

After assembly each helicopter is flown and put in a customer delivery area to be picked up. But if it’s being exported, which a good percentage are, the helicopter is taken back to a special area and disassembled to be crated for either a ship or flight to its new home. A board tracks the progress. On the day we were there, helicopters were bound for the Philippines, Russia, and South America. I suppose it’s not surprising that even the crates are built at the factory. AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines has taken the tour in the past and he said that if they could grow the trees to produce the material to build the crates they probably would.

The one place you’re not allowed to see on the tour is where they manufacture the blades. To a fixed-wing pilot familiar with off-the-shelf propellers, the idea of an airframe manufacturer making its own blades is unusual, but in the helicopter world it’s the norm. Every manufacturer thinks it has the secret and all likely guard it pretty closely.

By the end of the tour you’re struck by two things. First, it’s incredible that given a domestic source of raw materials and a huge amount of home-grown parts manufacturing that the helicopters don’t cost significantly more. It’s also interesting to see the employees interact. Our tour guide works on the technical support team, but he knew most of the people on the factory floor, and joked with each as we came through. Despite many thousands of square feet of floor space and thousands of employees, there is a personal touch and a much warmer sense than I’ve gotten on other tours.

For a helicopter that’s often billed as simple, basic, and somewhat unrefined the manufacturing process is modern, technologically advanced, and fascinating. It rivals some of the most modern factories I’ve seen. It probably won’t change the way I fly the helicopter or my perception of its capabilities, but it is nice to see the faces of the people who have built it and watch as they construct even more.

Next week: Solo maneuvers

Read all the stories in the Rotorcraft Rookie series.