Helicópteros do Brasil S.A (Helibras) is the only Brazilian manufacturer of helicopters, and with a market share in excess of 50 percent of turbine helicopters in the country and record revenues in 2010, the company is clearly a high flyer. Reuben Ford reports on how Helibras has propelled itself into a prominent position in the aeronautical industry.
A subsidiary of the Eurocopter Group, the world’s largest supplier of helicopters and a part of the EADS – European Aeronautic Defense and Space Group, Helibras provides assembly, sales and after-sales services for the group in Brazil. The company’s factory in Itajubá located in the state of Minas Gerais has a production capacity of 36 helicopters a year and is responsible for the production of more than 550 helicopters in the country’s skies.
Helibras began operations in 1978 in São José dos Campos, São Paulo. Initially, operations in Brazil were run according to a French project, Aerospatiale, as a result of a request by the Brazilian government. In 1980 the company inaugurated its factory in Itajuba (MG) and four years later the first major contract between the Brazilian Air Force and Aerospatiale secured the production of ten Super Puma helicopters: 30 of the single turbine ‘Esquilo’ model, produced by Helibras, and eleven dualturbine ‘Esquilos’.
With a clear mission to prosper through the fusion of expertise and experience, further joint ventures in 1988 to supply the Brazilian military pushed Helibras into the spotlight on a national and international stage, and three years later, in 1991, the company underwent its first capital restructuring. The contributions of a new partner, Bueninvest, strengthened market position and production and Helibras celebrated the completion of its 200th helicopter for the Brazilian market and decided to move the sales offices to industrial capital São Paulo. In 1998 the 3,500-square-meter sales complex also opened its workshop, which allowed maintenance and exclusive services for the fleet operational in the São Paulo area.
By 1999, Helibras had supplied the Brazilian market with 400 helicopters. The models were becoming more developed and the company was establishing its reputation for developing state-of-the-art technology and contributing to the evolution of the aeronautical industry. In 2002 the first Cougar helicopters were delivered to the Brazilian army, and at the end of the same year the updated Esquilo EC130, created by Eurocopter was available in Brazil.
Success with the military earned visibility in other areas and at the end of 2002 Super Puma models were supplied to the oil and gas industry. By 2006, Helibras was supplying helicopters for offshore operations and medical rescue and thanks to the company’s technology the Firefighters of the Distrito Federal, the state housing the country’s capital, was the first public organ to use a dual turbine helicopter, capable of transporting a pilot and seven passengers.
The public sector continued to benefit from Helibras’ developments and in 2007 Esquilo models were being used by the Brazilian Inland Revenue and National Security, thanks to advanced on-board navigation and surveillance systems.
In 2008 Helibras participated in one of its most important projects to date. At an event which was attended by the Brazilian President of the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Louis Gallois, CEO of EADS and the President of Eurocopter, Lutz Berling, the company celebrated the launch of a fleet of large Brazilian helicopters. The fleet was undersigned by the Federal Government, which commissioned 50 helicopters for the Brazilian Armed Forces. Initial investment in the project totaled $450 million for the expansion of the factory and transfer of technology between France and Brazil. As well as generating over 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, the project has created a new production line which will be operated at the new factory, which will be completed in 2012.
“The expansion process at Helibras is not restricted to constructing a new production line for helicopters. Our entire infrastructure is going through changes, being integrated with other Eurocopter facilities using the SAP system,” explains Helibras CEO, Eduardo Marson Ferreira. SAP (Systems, Applications and Products) in Data Processing is highly advanced management software that monitors and controls production. According to Arnaud Franjou, Information Systems Manager, “the software sets Helibras above others in the group, who haven’t achieved this innovation yet.”
The expansion of the company in both the military and civilian markets has earned the company special attention from the group’s headquarters in Europe. “Eurocopter is following Helibras closely, especially its maintenance services, which are more agile and bring even greater benefits to our clients”, says Franjou. Among the advantages of the SAP system is that it shortens the usual minimum ten day period necessary for importation of parts to just five. “Now 95 percent of all internal procedures are interlinked with the headquarters, making Helibras one of the most important companies in the group, eliminating duplicate information, reworking of products and resulting in all-round improvement,” he concludes.
Helibras sells eleven different models of helicopter in Brazil to the executive civilian market, government (police, firefighters) and armed forces. The best selling model is the AS350 Esquilo that is made in Itajubá with 43 percent of the parts produced in Brazil. As well as the Esquilo, Helibras represents and commercializes all other Eurocopter helicopters in Brazil.
In addition to the factory, Helibras has a maintenance and repairs center in São Paulo, which houses teams of technicians and mechanics that can travel to the clients if necessary. The company also has sales offices in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília e Curitiba. The infrastructure and staff are a constant focus of investment – currently employing 560, Ferreira estimates that this number will double in the next three years, during which period the military helicopter EC725 will also begin manufacture in Brazil.
The production of the EC725 nationally is the result of a $420 million expansion of the factory in Itajubá. The investment included a new hangar and the installation of state-of-the-art equipment for the manufacturing and assembly process as well as approximately 1,000 new employees.
“As well as this, Helibras is studying the possibility to install a simulator and increase the maintenance sector of the factory, in a constant bid to improve and evolve procedures. The EC725 program will increase the working capacity of our engineering department and take us to another level,” adds Ferreira. The implementation of the program has led Helibras to call upon technicians from France, who are already in Brazil working on the transfer of equipment and training process. In order to guarantee the very best staff, the company has also struck up working relationships with the top Brazilian universities, in partnership with EADS, to recruit future engineers.
With such a strong investment game plan, it is no surprise that Helibras has a 53 percent market share in turbine helicopters, 82 percent share of government helicopters and 66 percent of the military market. The impressive figures correspond to 35 percent annual growth of revenue since 2009. “In 2009, revenue reached $155 million, and in 2010 figures closed at $225 million,” says Ferreira – 83 percent of this was generated by the sale of new helicopters and 17 percent from parts and maintenance.
With turnover exceeding $350 million, the prominent growth is clear. Orders amounting to a staggering $1.9 billion are currently in the pipelines, projects which will guarantee revenues for a further six and a half years. Having always been the only manufacturer of helicopters in South America, Ferreira attributes Helibras’ growth to investment and excellent customer service.
Helibras is a pioneer in its sector. Always looking for the best solution to technical and practical issues, the company has achieved continuous and steady growth and success. With the support of Eurocopter, it offers the very best in efficiency, safety, technology and even customer-specific customized equipment.
As Helibras soars into the future, it has its sights set on further industry innovations. The work already completed on the EC725 includes a civilian version, the EC225, destined for the offshore market. The advances mark giant steps for Brazilian technology. “In a ten-year period, we anticipate producing a 100 percent Brazilian model, from conception to construction,” Ferreira concludes. The ambitious, all-Brazilian helicopter will be revolutionary in the nation’s aeronautical industry and guarantees that Helibras will be flying high for years to come.