🎧 Ready for ‘Lift-off’ with OPEN MIND

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As the name would suggest, Hill Helicopters is a manufacturer of luxury light helicopters. Since its inception, the company has been on a fascinating journey that is seeing the team of 80+ engineers develop and manufacture a complete aircraft from the ground up. To achieve this, the Rugeley manufacturer has enlisted the support of leading manufacturers from the sphere of machine tools, cutting tools and ancillary equipment. When the company needed industry-leading CAD/CAM technology that is trusted by the aerospace industry, it turned to OPEN MIND Technologies and its groundbreaking hyperMILL CAM suite.

Discussing the foundation blocks of the Staffordshire manufacturer, Company Founder, Chairman and Chief Engineer at Hill Helicopters, Dr Jason Hill says: “Hill Helicopters are designers, developers and manufacturers of the HX50 5-seat turbine light helicopter. We are actually bringing light helicopter manufacturing back to the UK for the first time in 50 years. To sell an effective general aviation light helicopter, you really have to match the price point with high-end supercars. To do that, you really can’t turn to the existing aerospace supply chain. So, we’ve had to develop a vertically integrated manufacturing strategy where we manufacture everything in-house from scratch.”

Commenting on how the company has achieved this, Dr Jason Hill adds: “We have developed the entire machining capability and the whole composite capability – for a whole aircraft, transmission system and the gas turbine engine. That has been an enormous undertaking. We have a group of technology partners that have essentially helped us to drag ourselves up the learning curve. This has enabled us to physically machine parts, cast parts and make composite components. OPEN MIND Technologies and hyperMILL have been an instrumental knowledge and support partner in enabling us to program and manufacture complex machined components in a wide variety of materials.”

Discussing the start of the relationship between Hill Helicopters and OPEN MIND Technologies UK, Justin Talboys-Cotton from OPEN MIND Technologies UK says: “We were initially invited by Hill Helicopters to look at their compressor wheel, which is effectively an impeller. It was a very challenging component with very small gaps. It was a challenge they gave us, but from that point on, there has been a wide variety of parts the company wants to make. From there, the relationship has grown and as Hill Helicopters have bought more equipment and machine tools, they have increased their usage of hyperMILL. Being invited into Hill helicopters at such an early stage – before machines and programmers were here, it has been really exciting to be part of this helicopter development programme and watching it grow.”

The company is fast approaching 1,000 sales with 943 aircraft pre-ordered for delivery to 67 countries at present. It is currently looking to invest in a new facility to accommodate its growth, and every month new milestones are being reached in bringing the project to rapid fruition. Hill Helicopters has pioneered a new approach to delivering and supporting safe, exciting luxury private aircraft ownership at an affordable price, calling the new concept ‘General Aviation 2.0’. General Aviation 2.0 (GA 2.0) is what Hill Helicopters calls an ‘end-to-end ownership experience’ that is entirely customer-focused. 

It begins with a ground-up modern aircraft design while simultaneously meeting or exceeding the latest EASA and FAA airworthiness requirements. Beyond this, GA 2.0 also provides an all-new, safe and fully supported ownership experience. These factors ensure the new aircraft delivers low operating costs and maintains a stable high resale value, making personal helicopter ownership more attainable than ever before. As an aircraft, the Hill GT50 engine is a 400hp unit with a take-off power of 440hp to 10,000ft, a cruise speed of 140kts and a maximum range of 700nm. The company is also manufacturing a commercial variant, the HC50. The differences between the HC50 and HX50 are price, time to market and customer participation in the HX50 manufacture.  

Commenting upon the current stage of development, Dr Jason Hill says: “Fundamentally, at this stage, our sole objective is to get through the development of parts and sub-systems as fast as possible. Pretty much everything we do on every single machine here is a first-off, a one-off. So, we must manage the risk of programmer error or machine crashes as we are going through these development phases at pace. The Virtual Machine capability within OPEN MIND is absolutely crucial to us being able to do that with minimum risk and the maximum confidence possible – as quickly as possible.”

Justin Talboys-Cotton from OPEN MIND adds: “Virtual Machine optimiser on the gantry mill is ensuring that the customer covers things like rewinding automatically. As a programmer, this means you program as normal even though the machine is complex. Having the hyperMILL Digital Twin set up and Optimizer, we automatically ensure the processes are collision-free and it can run within the machining envelope comfortably. I believe the main aim here in regards to being efficient, is managing lots of parts and lots of design changes that are involved with the components passing through the process chain for the first time. hyperMILL is enabling Hill Helicopters to really optimise their programs, first of all as prove-out for ‘fit for function’ but also to make sure the parts are going to be valid for the production environment as well.”

Adding to this, Dr Jason Hill comments: “We program milling and turning with hyperMILL and it is absolutely instrumental for us to be able to rapidly develop literally, hundreds of complex components in a wide variety of materials to extremely tight tolerances.”

Concluding on the project, Dr Jason Hill says: “I have been dreaming about making this helicopter since I was a little boy, so to find myself 44 years later in a position where this thing is becoming physical and becoming real, where we are not far from actually flying – it is an amazing experience. I think the day-to-day requirements of building a helicopter and a jet engine from scratch is extremely demanding. However, seeing the joy in our staff and our 943 customers who are seeing this thing become real and taking its first baby steps into flight, more than offset that. It’s a journey that has definitely been worth it.”

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