Helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft has a long, storied history in Connecticut, one that company president Paul Lemmo says will only grow.
“Sikorsky, I believe, is transforming the face of manufacturing in Connecticut,” Lemmo told over 200 manufacturing leaders at the Oct. 29 Made in Connecticut: 2021 Manufacturing Summit in Trumbull.
Five years ago, the Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky committed to increasing its Connecticut workforce to 8,000 by 2032, double its spending with in-state suppliers to $750 million, and increase capital spending by 22%.
Lemmo said Lockheed Martin has now invested $600 million in Sikorsky's Stratford plant over the last five years, “well on our way to what will be a $1 billion investment."
"It's not going to be a factory you would not recognize from five years ago,” Lemmo said.
In the last year alone, Sikorsky has worked with more than 250 suppliers in Connecticut, spending over $450 million.
Supply Chain Support
Brian Montanari, president and CEO of one of those companies, Glastonbury-based HABCO Industries, was in the audience and thanked Lemmo for Sikorsky's treatment of suppliers over the past 20 months, particularly with accelerated payments, "sometimes within 24 hours of shipping."
“We recognized early that there was going to be a cash crunch and we wanted to make sure we supported our small and midsized suppliers," Lemmo said.
"And that's something we’re continuing to do as this pandemic is far from over.”
Lemmo said the company is navigating a number of challenges, including the skilled worker shortage, to keep pace with production demands.
"We hired 1,000 people last year—in the middle of a pandemic—double what we did in 2019,” he said. “And in the last nine months we’ve added another 600 employees."
Production of the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter for the U.S. Marine Corps is driving much of Sikorsky's growth.
Known as the King Stallion, the CH-53K is the successor to Sikorsky's CH-53E Super Stallion, which first flew in 1974.
The CH-53K is designed to carry 27,000 pounds—three times the CH-53E's payload—up to 110 nautical miles, and will be largest helicopter in military operation.
Sikorsky marked delivery of the first CH-53K to the Marine Corps in September with a ceremony at the Stratford plant.
Six King Stallions are currently in the final assembly phase, with three dozen more in early production at Stratford and Sikorsky's satellite facilities in Bridgeport, Shelton, and Trumbull.
The Marine Corps wants 200 of the helicopters, with final contract numbers dependent on Congress and the White House allocating appropriate funding. Sikorsky is also targeting sales of another 100 to other countries.
Lemmo said the CH-53K was the first aircraft “born in a digital environment," created using advanced technologies such as manufacturing simulation and 3D laser inspection technology.
"It has more advanced engines, more advanced rotors, and it's fully computer controlled," Lemmo said. "Its digital flight controls could enable it to almost fly itself if the pilot had a problem or there was no visibility."
Lemmo said digital transformation is driving all aspects of Sikorsky's operations.
“We have had digital design tools for decades, but with the CH-53K we have extended that into manufacturing, meaning everything we do in the design is translatable onto the manufacturing floor,” he said.
"We can actually fly and simulate everything these aircraft can do before we put the first bolt on the aircraft."
It allows the company to better plan out the process of creating each aircraft, which Lemmo says will drive speed, agility, and affordability.
Lemmo said it was even a surprise to him with how quickly even the most senior people on the production floors adapted and accepted the new technology.
He added that technology is also transforming how Sikorsky manages support services, with "a whole set of digital tools for technicians to maintain aircraft in the field."
“This is really how aircraft are going to be designed, built, and maintained from here on forward,” he explained.
“It’s all digital and we have the capability of building an aircraft as large as the CH-53K and as small as one of the future vertical lift aircraft.”
Next Generation Aircraft
Sikorsky is investing heavily in research and development of the next generation of military aircraft, including vertical lift models.
The company's Raider-X helicopter is one of two finalists in one of the Pentagon's two vertical lift programs and is partnering with Boeing on an entry in the other program.
"Our plan is to build those aircraft here in Connecticut should we be fortunate enough to get them," Lemmo said.
Sikorsky is also building the new VH-92A, the replacement for Marine One—the presidential helicopter—and the U.S. Air Force's new combat search and rescue helicopter, the HH-60W Jolly Green II.
“We’ve flown every president since Eisenhower,” said Lemmo. “It’s just a mission we are very proud of and we take very seriously.”
Production of Sikorsky's iconic Black Hawk helicopter, in production since the 1970s, is expected to decline significantly in coming years.
Lemmo said Connecticut's skilled workforce is one of the state's best assets, with talent critical to the company's technological transformation.
“We have great products, but the products are created by the people in our business,” he said.
Of the 13,000 people the company employs across the world, 8,000 work in Connecticut.
Lemmo, who started with Lockheed Martin as a 19-year-old intern, said Sikorsky is "having to become more and more creative" with its workforce development efforts.
Sikorsky contributes over three-quarters of a million dollars annually to nonprofit organizations, directing much of its charitable giving to education programs.
“For our philanthropic efforts, STEM education is number one,” Lemmo said, noting early outreach to middle and high school students, and the company’s Camp Sikorsky initiative.
“We are in a war for talent, quite frankly, and that’s why we start so early to attract people to science and math and to the industry.”
Veterans' groups are also a significant part of both Sikorsky's philanthropic efforts and workforce development initiatives.
"Veterans make up 25% of Lockheed Martin’s workforce, including Sikorsky," Lemmo said. “We love hiring veterans—they know our product and they love what we do.
"We like to give back as well as draw from local communities."
Since the pandemic began, Lemmo said the company continues to review and overhaul many of its workplace practices, with about 30% of employees currently working remotely.
Sikorsky has also adopted a flexible work week, allowing employees to work four 10-hour shifts rather than the traditional five days.
Lemmo said the company continues to be driven by the vision of its founder, Igor Sikorsky, "to save lives and bring people home safely every time."
The Made in Connecticut: 2021 Manufacturing Summit was produced by CBIA, CONNSTEP, and ReadyCT and made possible through the generous support of TD Bank with additional support from RSM, GuardSight, and Stanley Black & Decker.