The Sikorsky CH-53K heavy lift helicopter currently being developed for the U.S. Marine Corps will contain more than 20,000 individually designed parts. This means building an experimental prototype of the aircraft ends up being one hell of a complicated three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. And if just one of the pieces doesn’t fit where it’s supposed to, it can cost millions of extra dollars. To find production and maintenance issues before things progress too far, Sikorsky has unveiled a virtual reality center that the company hopes will save it time and money in final assembly of the aircraft.

Located within the engineering labs at Sikorsky’s main manufacturing facility in Connecticut, the virtual reality center consists of 12 cameras placed along the walls, a head-mounted display, sensor gloves and a gripping tool with force feedback that combine to capture the movements of the operator and allow them to be immersed inside the digital 3D representation of the CH-53K. All these devices are linked to three computers, which comprise the “command center” for operating the system.

“This tool will enhance the designer’s ability to design an aircraft that is easier to maintain. Designers will no longer have to rely on their imaginations to understand assembly and maintenance issues. They will be able to experience them long before parts are fabricated,” said Mark Miller, Sikorsky vice president, research and engineering.

The system has already proven its worth by identifying a number of fuel lines that required modification. The system revealed that the components wouldn’t fit into the aircraft as originally designed or would’ve been damaged during installation. The company estimates this discovery alone saved it about US$18 million.

The CH-53K helicopter, which is designed as a replacement for the U.S. Marine Corps three-engine CH-53E SUPER STALLION heavy lift helicopter, is currently in the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase. It will maintain virtually the same footprint as its predecessor, but will nearly triple the payload to 27,000 pounds (12,247 kg) over 110 nautical miles under “hot high” ambient conditions.

The CH-53K helicopter’s maximum gross weight (MGW) with internal loads is 74,000 pounds (33,565 kg), a 6 percent improvement over the CH-53E aircraft, while its MGW with external loads is 88,000 pounds (39,916 kg) , a 20 percent improvement over the CH-53E helicopter.

The Sikorsky new aircraft program is planned to include production of more than 200 aircraft.