Frank Robinson has had a long history with helicopters. Fresh out of college, Robinson worked at Cessna on their Skyhook helicopter in the late 1950s, then spent time with Kaman Aircraft and Bell Helicopter before ending up at Hughes Helicopter, where he worked on their highly successful Hughes 500 design. In the early 1970s, though, Robinson saw a market for a small, inexpensive helicopter. When no one at Hughes shared his vision, Robinson decided to do it himself, and in 1973, Robinson Helicopter Company was born.
For decades, Robinson Helicopter produced their R22 and R44 helicopters through traditional machining processes. In 2004, as production began to skyrocket, Robinson purchased their first abrasive waterjet, an OMAX 55100 JetMachining® Center that was brought in to cut sheet metal. "Our abrasive waterjets have really helped us expand production yet minimize out-sourcing" says Paul Johnson. As head of Robinson Helicopter Company Tooling Department, Paul has watched Robinson production grow. In 2010, with a new turbine-powered 5-place helicopter coming into production, Robinson added 133,000 square feet to their production facility. This new model, plus continuing high demand for the R22 and R44, saw production rates in 2012 reach 45% over 2011.
Abrasive waterjet machining has played an important part in this growth through its precision and versatility. "In the beginning, we hand-cut sheet metal, one sheet at a time. Then, we used CNCs." That sped things up, Paul says, since the sheets could be stacked to 250-thousands of an inch. But the abrasive waterjet made cutting even faster, and with the advanced taper-removal Tilt-A-Jet® cutting head, cutting remains high tolerance without sacrificing speed. "With the Tilt-A-Jet, we can cut multiple sheets, stacked to a thickness of 400-thousandths of an inch, and do it within tolerances."
Robinson's production line currently includes six OMAX JetMachining Centers. Each of the waterjets operates eleven hours a day cutting helicopter hulls and parts, plus tools, fixtures, and jigs for use on the production line. That first 55100 has been joined by five more machining centers: two additional 55100s, a 5555, an 80160, and large-format 80X-1. The large format 80X-1 was ideal for cutting rotor blade skins, as it had the length needed for these long parts. A change in blade design resulted in a more complex shape, but with the advanced JETCAM nesting software, the abrasive waterjet is able to cut multiple skins with perfectly straight edges. Paul sees additional OMAX machines in Robinson's future, and would like to add another large format waterjet to meet demand.
Paul Johnson says he continually finds new ways to save money and time by using an abrasivejet instead of a CNC. For instance, until recently, the jig set used to bond helicopter rotor blades was cut on a CNC, a process that took a week. Now, the jig set is cut on a waterjet in one afternoon, using more durable stainless steel. Each jig set lasts longer yet takes less time to machine, a savings that adds up quickly on the fast-paced Robinson production line.
Another OMAX time-saver is the powerful Intelli-MAX® Software Suite. "The software is wonderful," says Paul. "Anybody can learn it in half a day. It was a big selling point."
The Intelli-MAX software flexibility and ease-of-use played a central role in Robinson's helicopter R & D. When the new 5-seat R66 Turbine helicopter was on the drawing board, the Robinson engineering team took advantage of the Intelli-MAX software. Before, when developing the earlier R22 and R44 models, templates for parts were hand-made and any changes in design often meant days of additional work. Now, as engineers design, test, then re-design parts, the software makes it easy. An hour after getting new specifications, Paul and his crew were in production. Within the day they were able to deliver re-designed parts to the engineers. This versatility helped bring the R66 to production in 2010. The abrasive waterjet continues to play an important role in the production of the R66, as no dies are used: everything is cut on the waterjet. This simplification in production has improved manufacturing times, and the 100th R66 rolling off the production line a year later.
"OMAX has been a life-saver," Paul explains. "Between R & D and our production rates, we just couldn't have done it without an OMAX waterjet."