California-based startup Archer has partnered with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to tap the automaker’s supply chain and manufacturing expertise as the company pursues volume production of its passenger eVTOL aircraft.
A relative newcomer on the urban air mobility scene, Archer made headlines last year for recruiting key talent away from numerous other leading eVTOL aircraft developers, including Joby Aviation, Wisk, Kitty Hawk and Airbus’ now-concluded Vahana technology demonstrator program. At the time, one source familiar with industry-wide hiring trends told Aviation Today the company was driving up salaries across the west coast of the United States but expected that impact would be “short-lived.”
Just under a year later, Archer — founded by former Vettery co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein — has grown its engineering team to over 60 members, with plans to unveil and fly its full-scale eVTOL prototype this year. The five-seat aircraft is projected to have a range of 60 miles (96 kilometers), top speed of 150 mph (240 km/h) and will be fully electric.
For now, Archer is focused entirely on passenger transportation, though Goldstein acknowledges that there are other “very interesting business opportunities” such as military, cargo and emergency services that may be pursued in the future. The company is also planning on operating its own aircraft as the “world’s first all-electric airline.”
Leveraging the experience and lessons-learned of its competitors, Adcock told eVTOL.com that Archer has flown the full flight envelope of its aircraft with subscale prototypes, is “deep in the certification process” with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and hopes to beat much of the competition to a certified aircraft.
“I think while others have zigged and zagged, we have a plan to actually take a straight line to get a vehicle to market and so I think we could be, if not the first, one of the first vehicles to market,” Goldstein told eVTOL.com. He listed key hires such as the company’s head of flight controls, chief avionics architect, head of aerodynamics and head of flight tests as having previously run those same departments at competing eVTOL design programs.
As the company prepared for certification, Archer added numerous certification engineers with experience on FAA Part 23 and Part 27 projects; now, looking ahead to manufacturing, Adcock and Goldstein have secured a partnership with the fourth-largest automotive group by volume in the world, as FCA Group is undergoing a merger with France’s Groupe PSA to create a new umbrella entity called Stellantis.
Archer has already been working with FCA for about a year, Adcock told eVTOL.com, and its prototype includes cockpit design elements from FCA and parts — door handles and seatbelts, for example — sourced from the automaker’s supply chain. Archer aims to certify its aircraft and begin volume production by 2023.
Peter Wells, director of the center for automotive industry research at Cardiff Business School, told eVTOL.com that supply chain management is one of the key competencies he expects FCA to bring to the partnership, along with whole vehicle integration.
“Chrysler, especially, is heavily outsourced and the company has been very focused on developing their supply chain management in order to drive cost reduction. They have teams of people that go into those suppliers to look at layouts and processes to help take down costs,” Wells said. “That expertise, in terms of being able to go into what is probably primarily an aerospace supply chain and kick it into shape, so to speak, to meet automotive-style standards and requirements I think will be a valuable asset.”
From FCA’s perspective, Wells views the announcement as some “positive noise” for the automaker. The Stellantis merger, which shareholders voted to approve on January 4, will require the combined company to “take a knife to that business and take out moribund brands and deal with their manufacturing footprint and all sorts of stuff.”
The automaker needs some positive, interesting news to excite investors and employees, Wells said.
“I think there is an attempt to create a positive vibe,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re not going to do it; it just means that at this point, it’s a good story for them to run with, and it shows intent. They could see it through, but neither [Fiat Chrysler nor PSA] have particularly strong records in terms of innovation and design.”
A spokesperson for FCA Group said the agreement with Archer will help the automaker “gain exposure and learn about the urban air mobility market,” noting that electrification “is the future” of the transportation sector both on the road and in the air. FCA is the parent company of American brands Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram.
“FCA has committed to work with Archer on key areas such as advanced composites and [noise, vibration and harshness] where FCA’s expertise will add significant value to Archer’s product development timeline,” the spokesperson told eVTOL.com. “We are not discussing the details of resource allocation at this time, however the two parties are committed to exploring opportunities that continue to broaden and build upon these early stages.”
The entrance of automakers into the urban air mobility scene has largely been greeted positively, since eVTOL manufacturers hope to produce aircraft at rates far beyond what any traditional aerospace companies have done in the past few decades. Hyundai, with the creation of its urban air mobility division, has made the most vertically integrated move into the sector, while Toyota opted to invest almost $400 million and partner with Joby Aviation.
“As well as receiving valuable input and advice from teams working within Toyota, we also have Toyota engineers embedded within our teams at Joby,” a spokesperson for Joby told eVTOL.com. “Whether it’s building on Toyota’s expertise in hybrid powertrain systems to improve the reliability and safety of our system, or applying the Toyota Production System philosophy to our production plans, we are very fortunate to have Toyota as partners and we expect our collaboration to grow from here.”
Archer, similarly, hopes its partnership with FCA will increase its odds of success at building a manufacturing operation capable of eventually producing tens of thousands of aircraft a year — the kind of scale necessary to make urban air mobility widely available and affordable.
“The autos are the only group in the world that have learned how to produce thousands and thousands of vehicles and bring the cost down over time and make it more automated,” Adcock told eVTOL.com. “There are techniques like resin transfer molding and compression molding that we’ll need to learn from them and figure out for ourselves in order to think about high volume composite manufacturing and certify those processes with the FAA . . . Partnering with Fiat gives us higher odds of being able to achieve those techniques because they do it today.”
Automakers have made significant progress in adapting to some of the materials and practices found in aerospace, Wells told eVTOL.com, in terms of rigorous control of material quality and delivering at high levels of dimensional accuracy and repeatability at large volumes.
“Look at what BMW has done with the i3, for example,” Wells said. “I went to the factory in Leipzig and it’s very impressive the amount of care that went into track-and-trace through the whole manufacturing system to ensure safety and reliability . . . they just wanted to be sure they had absolute control over the production process, and if anything went [outside of accepted limits] in terms of quality control, they would know exactly which machine to look at, exactly which process to look at.”
For Archer’s co-founders, the deal with FCA — the first of the Big Three Detroit automakers to move into the eVTOL space — reflects the progress their all-star engineering team has quietly made to catch up with established names like Joby, Kitty Hawk and Wisk.
“Having Fiat Chrysler choose Archer we think validates us as one of the leaders in the space,” Adcock said. “Our goal here is to be one of the first groups to market and to build a big business, and we think our timeline, the supporting balance sheet we have with [Marc Lore, president of Walmart eCommerce] and other investors, and now Fiat here as well, we have the ability to really do that.”