Created through a merger of the helicopter divisions of Aerospatiale-matra (Paris) and DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (Munich, Germany), Eurocopter (Marignane, France) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the European Aeronautic, Defense and Space Company (Schiphol Rijk, The Netherlands) and one of the world's leading helicopter manufacturers. In addition, the company manufacturers a number of components for commercial airplane manufacturer Airbus. For example, Eurocopter is involved in Airbus' ongoing A380 super-jumbo aircraft program.

Recently, the company implemented a pair of portable laser tracker measurement systems from Leica Geosystems (Norcross, GA) to improve its quality assurance program and technical measurement procedures. Today, the company uses the systems on everything from A380 component measurements to fabricating jigs for helicopter fuselage final assembly.

Because of their mobility, the laser trackers mean Eurocopter can perform direct on-line measurements during manufacturing. In other words, an object no longer has to be temporarily removed from the production line and moved to a fixed examination point, as had been the case in the past.

In practice, technicians will use a Leica LTD800 tracker in combination with a wireless T-Probe, equipped with a battery of sensors from Renishaw plc (Gloucestershire, UK). The T-Probe, a light, handheld device that operates without arms or cables, allows engineers to carry out mobile precision measurements of just about anything, anywhere. Eurocopter technicians also have the option of using Leica's handheld T-Scan scanner, which enables users to quickly digitize large objects with high precision.

According to Reinhold Grosskopf, head of workshop development at the Eurocopter production plant in Donauwürth, Germany, the Leica trackers are used most frequently in the construction of large assembly jigs, or "slipways." Previously, the devices had to be built in sections within a fixed coordinate-measurement machine. The sections were then combined into a complete system on the production line.

Now, the entire process can be done right on the line, where the jigs are needed. Examples of these jigs include the large frameworks required to assemble Eurocopter's popular NH-90 transport helicopter. In this case, each jig is more than 21 feet long, 9 feet wide and 12 feet high.

As an added benefit, the trackers are used to modify these same frameworks to accommodate changes in product design. Using the laser measuring systems, any necessary alterations can be added to an existing framework without having to involve the construction department again. Overall, Grosskopf estimates the trackers have reduced jig production and upgrade times for the NH-90 program by approximately 70 percent

Another application where Eurocopter uses the portable trackers is at the company's new robot facility. Specifically, technicians use the systems to check whether the newly installed robots are drilling and milling airframe holes with the same precision as the previous CNC machine.

Leica laser trackers are also playing a key role in the examination of doors that Eurocopter manufactures for the A380. Virtually every door that Eurocopter produces has slightly different specifications, and when a door is in the fixture, the positions of its "doorstops" have to be confirmed.

"Our employees have to cope with a huge work and maintenance turnover with regard to the manufacture of doors and doorways for the Airbus assembly operations. These problems can only be solved in a goal-oriented way with a flexible measurement system such as the Leica laser tracker," Grosskopf says. In fact, the task would be prohibitively cumbersome if not for the portable measuring devices.

"The Leica laser trackers have proved their worth for us," Grosskopf says. "What is particularly impressive, in practical terms, is the time savings we have been able to achieve thanks to the flexibility of the laser tracker system."

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