Through its Brazilian affiliate Helibras, Eurocopter has become the only helicopter manufacturer in the world that is implementing comprehensive industrial and technological activities in Brazil, placing the country as its fourth industrial base, behind France, Germany and Spain. Helibras was established in 1978 at São José dos Campos city (Embraer’s birthplace) at São Paulo State. The company moved in 1980 to Itajubá City located in the southern state of Minas Gerais.
Today, Minas Gerais has country’s third largest state GDP/economy following São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where, not by coincidence, the three major helicopter fleets are concentrated. This Southeast tri-state region also has an aerospace and defense cluster with almost 90 percent of those industries in Brazil.
At the current Helibras plant, the yearly production capacity for Squirrel (Esquilo AS350) is 36 units plus finish and customization of other models locally sold. But in 2010 due to the market expansion, the company produced 42 units plus F&C services. The numbers for 2011 will remain as high. For next year this area will keep maintenance services/MRO only and the external areas as painting cabins, specific repairs, etc. are being improved, as part of their strategy to increase the earnings with services. Two recent services contracts signed with the Brazilian Army, one for a major upgrade of 34 AS365K Panther transport helicopters and another the modernization of 36 AS350 Ecureuils (Esquilo) will also take place in this area at a rate of four aircraft per year. From current total of 247 military (Army, Air Force and Navy) helicopters, 67 percent (148) are from Helibras/Eurocopter (Esquilo, Fennec, Panther and Cougar).
Just next to the current plant, the new 11,000-square-meter facility is set for opening by December 2012, accommodating areas for the EC725 assembly line, manufacturing, administrative offices, along with a design office for customization, production support and program management. The integration between engineers and technicians from Eurocopter and Helibras engaged with the local project is on its way, including long-term training of Brazilian engineers and technicians at Eurocopter plants. Currently 14 local companies have already signed supply contracts with Helibras.
The contract for 50 EC725s—18 units for the Air Force, (two for presidential use), 16 for the Army and 16 for the Navy, each group with some specific required equipment—is already effective with three initial fully French-made units already delivered, one for each armed force. The full maintenance for all EC725 Makila 2A1 engines will take place at Turbomeca do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro, where the aircraft’s flight simulator will also be installed. An expected business sequence for Helibras is the sale/production of the civil EC225 version for Petrobras (the fifth largest oil and gas producer) offshore operators, due to the expansion of this type of helicopters required to operate on the pre-salt in the next 10 years. The EC225 offshore production/sale could be supported by some government commercial concessions for a locally manufactured product. Today, Brazil’s oil and gas helicopter fleet is about 110 units, most of them operating for Petrobras, with the EC225 about 30 percent of these units. Sales to other Latin American countries are also foreseen.
Following a visit from Eurocopter’s CEO, Louis Gallois at Helibras to verify ‘in loco” the project development, the UNIFEI (Federal University of Itajubá), Helibras, ABDI (Brazilian Agency for Industrial Development), and the MDIC (Ministry for Development, Industry and External Trade) organized in Itajubá at the UNIFEI premises. The three-day event, the Development of the Rotary Wing Aeronautical Sector in Brazil, focused on aeronautical development in Minas Gerais, the CTH (Helicopter Technological Center) and the Heli-Cluster projects.
The CTH UNIFEI project is part of a recent governmental program, Bigger Brazil, aimed to expand new technological competencies and business opportunities where the aeronautical and defense areas, including the helicopter industry, are priorities and capable to improve the industrial structure. The EC725 contract catalyzed this project.
At the end of the event, Helibras’ CEO, Eduardo Ferreira confirmed to Rotor & Wing Eurocopter’s plans to build expertise and extend Helibras capabilities through cooperation and offset programs in order for the company develop and launch its own local helicopter by 2020.
With such a strong actions and positive scenario ahead, the hilly, green and hidden city of Itajubá seems poised to become the first helicopter cluster in Latin America.