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Communication Aids Design

Sikorsky Aircraft builds closer ties with the Army to share information and build a better helicopter
Before Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. could build the U.S. Army one of the world's most advanced helicopters, it first had to make some big advances in its collaboration techniques.

When the Stratford, Conn., company started working on the RAH-66 Comanche, an aircraft that can fly up to 70 mph sideways and backward, it didn't have effective means of communicating among its team members. While the 250 design engineers used CAD packages to create 3-D models, there was no way of sharing those models easily or working together on a project. The engineers would communicate via fax, phone, mail, and E-mail, which was costly because of the time it added to the design phase. Darryl Toni, lead structural engineer at Sikorsky, estimates that improved collaboration strategies have decreased time to market by roughly 40%.

Two years ago, Sikorsky deployed collaboration software called NexPrise ipTeam--now marketed under the name of its new owner, Ventro Corp.--that acts as a repository for models, simulations, and documentation surrounding the helicopter. The engineers each upload 10 to 40 new objects a day, and engineers, managers, and customers can log on through an Internet connection to work on the design or merely check on its progress. The electronic collaboration makes it simpler, among other things, for different design teams to hand off pieces of the helicopter design.

The teams haven't always shared well with each other. If a member of the material-testing team needed information from the analysis team, he or she had to make a formal request, and it wasn't unheard of for the analysis team to take a couple of weeks to get around to answering. Now, any member of the design group can access information that's relevant to his or her work, instantly.

A major source of delays before the new approach: The Army and Sikorsky might have had different ideas about how the helicopter should evolve. Army officials weren't involved in each step of the design because sharing the designs was difficult and time-consuming. Often, a full review happened far too late in the process. "The design was already made, and the manufacturing had already started, and they had little input to modify the product," Toni says. That meant the Army either had to take the product as is or start the design process over again. Now, the Army checks in on the design process at least every other day, giving the development more of an iterative flow. The collaboration has spread throughout Sikorsky. Though it started with the Comanche program, the Army liked the results so much it has asked other groups to use it as well. The design groups for the UH-60M, a derivative of the Black Hawk helicopter, and the commercial S-92 have kicked off collaboration initiatives, drawing primarily on the Ventro software. "Once we exposed the customer to the advantages, they latched on to it," Toni says. "They're using it as a standard."