On a wall of the AHRLAC production facility at Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria, there is a quote from Albert Einstein. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” reads the quote.
A lot of imagination and daring have gone into the AHRLAC project since it was initially conceived nearly ten years ago. AHRLAC (Advanced, High Performance, Reconnaissance Light Aircraft) has an unusual design with a high two person cockpit and a pusher propeller but the company’s manufacturing strategy for the aircraft is also unusual with plans to build a high degree of self-reliance on the manufacturing of parts from the start.
AHRLAC was conceived as a multi-purpose single propeller driven reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. There is now also a militarised version, the MWARI, which is able to take on weapons. Roles include anti-poaching, offshore patrols, and border and general domestic security. Its military role is focused on asymmetric threats.
Paramount Group and its partners in AHRLAC Holdings are gradually ramping up production of the AHRLAC. The new state of the art aircraft factory is designed to produce two AHRLAC aircraft per month when it reaches full capacity. However the modular design of the factory allows for the scaling up of production to meet according to customer demand. The company will not talk about its customers.
The Wonderboom facility opened in March this year and the first production model of the AHRLAC flew in June. Recently the company took those attending the Aeronautical Society of South Africa’s annual conference on a tour of the facility.
The AHRLAC self-sufficiency strategy has a strong provenance in the SA defence industry from the era of arms sanctions. Although in-house or local production can be an expensive route, the engineers have found a way of making this work.
Paul Potgieter Jr, AHRLAC’s programme manager, says the major drive for the push for self-sufficiency in parts was because much of the aerospace parts manufacturing industry in SA simply no longer exists. The alternative would be to rely on parts from overseas, which often means long waiting times.
While US sourced aluminium is used for the airframe, and the engine is a Pratt and Whitney PT6 built in Canada, the manufacturing and production of around 80 percent, in weight, and over 50 percent in value, is done in house. Potgieter says that 98 percent of the approximately 6 000 non-engine parts are locally produced.
The aim of building what Potgieter calls “a silo of self-sufficiency” extends from design to component manufacture and assembly and flights tests. “We are aiming to do everything ourselves,” says Potgieter.
To pursue maximum self-sufficiency, Paramount and its partners in AHRLAC Holdings have heavily invested in high-end machine tools for milling, forming, pressing, and 3D printing. There are a number of state of the art large five axis milling machines for the production of core parts on the factory floor. In partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), AHRLAC Holdings is developing a 3D printer for the production of titanium parts. So far over 60 parts are printed, but Potgieter says the aim is to print a lot more in time. To reduce weight and cost the company is looking into greater use of composite parts to replace those made out of metal.
Potgieter says that the high accuracy of machining and 3D printing allow for greater precision in parts production. This higher precision means that unusually for an aircraft factory, no jigs are used. A jig holds parts and acts as a guiding tool for assembly. AHRLAC does have a few fixtures for parts, but these are only used at points where there is a critical join.
Jigless manufacture reduces costs and makes the assembly line less cluttered. To further streamline production and reduce costs the company uses Just In Time parts supply in the assembly process, something that its heavy investment in machine tools permits.
AHRLAC employs about 120 people and there are plans to hire more engineers to develop the special mission roles of the aircraft.
Potgieter says having the engine in the rear is a distinct advantage in the intelligence and reconnaissance roles as interference with sensors in the nose is substantially reduced. To cater for additional sensors the aircraft’s nose has been enlarged and to improve the aerodynamic properties, retractable wheels will be introduced.
Paramount has a cooperation agreement with Boeing for the integration of weapons systems and avionics as well as maintenance, repair, and overhaul.
For the past few months flight tests have focused on proving the aircraft’s operational ability in remote areas. Week-long “bush camps” have taken place in Botswana and near Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape to prove the aircraft’s operational ability in areas where spare parts and high end service cannot readily be obtained.
An active imagination was needed to conceive and manufacture AHRLAC, and now the wait is on for the big step of seeing it in operational use with customers.