Asheville, North Carolina-based GE Aviation is a world-leading jet engine maker and aerospace service systems provider. David Soyka reports on how the combination of technology and smart manufacturing grow both business prospects and the state economy.
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The Wright Brothers historic take-off at Kitty Hawk earns North Carolina’s claim to “first in flight.” GE Aviation also boasts a number of aerospace firsts, including building the first jet engine, the first turbojet engines to exceed by two and three times the speed of sound and the first high bypass turbofan engine. The latest first: ceramic matrix components (CMCs)—silicon carbide ceramic fibers enhanced by proprietary coatings that replace use of metal—used in a new generation of LEAP and GE9X jet engine models built at GE Aviation’s Asheville location, the only factory in the world employing this innovative lightweight technology. GE Aviation developed CMC to address customer needs for greater durability, fuel efficiency and cost effectiveness. Which is why both GE Aviation and North Carolina are booked to attain high flying business success.
“In 2014 we broke ground on a new plant adjacent to our existing operations as part of our long-term planning to integrate CMC into our new product lines,” explains plant manager Michael Meguiar. “At the time we projected this would create 52 incremental jobs. Today, we’ve far exceeded that, adding over 100 new employees, for a total of almost 400 today compared to 290 three years ago.” According to the Citizens-Times, the original new jobs estimates was expected to generate $600,000 in state and local tax revenues.
The 170,000 square feet addition next to its 110,000 square-foot machining plant was part of a $200 million investment in the Asheville area and across North Carolina. While GE Aviation initially considered locations outside of North Carolina, state and local bodies combined to offer some $11 million worth of incentives packages and grants, as well as funding technical training programs at community technical schools.
“We’ve enjoyed tremendous support from all levels of government here in North Carolina,” notes Meguiar. “Together we’re working to grow the manufacturing base, develop local partnerships and collectively support efforts to create jobs and continue economic expansion.” GE Aviation’s total direct and indirect economic impact on the state is estimated at more than $4.9 billion annually.
GE Aviation is making a significant contribution to improving the state economy due to the increasing demand for LEAP (500 engines in 2017 projected to grow to some 2200 engines yearly by 2020) and GEnx jet engines (1300 engines flying in just under six years). “We’ve had an 80 percent win rate with LEAP in competitive proposals,” Meguiar says. “The volume of work is unprecedented; we’re projecting a growth rate of 20 to 30 percent over the next four years.” That sort of good fortune can have unfortunate consequences in straining resources; Meguiar, however, notes that, “We anticipated this kind of growth as part of our long-term planning. That’s why we built a new facility and made various other investments. GE Aviation knew that CMC was going to revolutionize the aerospace sector and result in this kind of demand.”
Which is perhaps not surprising considering how LEAP is a direct response to identifying and meeting customer needs. As CMC plant leader Ryan Huth explains, “Our jet engine customers have three objectives: reduce the cost of ownership, improve durability and increase fuel efficiency. CMC addresses all three. The engine components we produce through this technology are lighter and longer lasting than traditional metal parts. In fact, a typical CMC part is a third of the density of a metal part. Just like a car when you reduce its weight, you gain more fuel efficiency.”
Lighter and Cooler
He goes on to point out that, “Lighter parts are more heat resistant, and consequently run cooler— on average 5000F cooler than metal parts. Because a lighter engine runs cooler, the engine’s air systems can be redirected from cooling parts to improving the engine flow path and overall fuel efficiency. And because parts are running at lower temperatures, it improves their long-term durability—which means less maintenance and more time in service—all of which significantly reduces cost of ownership.”
What also helps reduce cost of ownership to customers is GE Aviation’s intense focus on lean manufacturing to produce the highest quality at the highest cost-efficiencies. Indeed, despite being a new technology, CMC manufacture costs are on par with traditional metal parts manufacture. “The challenge was less about changing our mechanical processes than it was working with new chemical processes,” Meguiar says. “But it was a more manageable challenge because we planned for this in building a new plant dedicated to CMC manufacturing.”
In addition, Huth notes, GE Aviation’s fully integrated vertical integration further reduces costs while it improves operational efficiency. “We either control outright or are in a joint venture with every element of the CMC supply chain.” This encompasses a raw materials plant in Huntsville, Ala. plus research labs in Ohio and Delaware in addition to the full-scale CMC production in Ashville. Overall, GE Aviation has added more than 1.5 million square feet of new production and services facilities, including eight new facilities and additions to 10 existing plants just in anticipation of LEAP production ramp up.
Equally important is a skilled and dedicated workforce. “Generally we look for people who have the aptitude to learn and the right attitude that we can train to perform the necessary technical tasks, “Meguiar says. “This is yet another example of how we partner with the state in working with the technical schools and community colleges to develop the skill sets you need in modern manufacturing. We’ve also developed a high school program for seniors that provides hands-training that puts them in line for any open position here at GE Aviation, or that they can put to use with any other manufacturer.”
Huth emphasizes that this is not “your father’s manufacturing environment,” characterized by working under dirty conditions, performing dull and repetitive tasks. “It’s a one hundred percent teaming effort working in a completely safe and clean environment. There a variety of roles to fill and challenges to meet, and everyone works collectively to identify and solve problems and continuously improve. Manufacturing and GE Aviation in particular offers good and satisfying careers with expanding opportunities.”
Those opportunities are expanding in part because the lighter, more fuel efficient and cost-effective jet engines containing CMC that customers increasingly demand. “We’re part of a larger company that is involved in other industries besides aerospace that have similar technologies,” Huth points out. “CMC is our crown jewels, a proprietary technology that differentiates us not only for jet engines. For example, we have a GE division that makes turbines used in the gas and oil industries—the same advantages CMC achieves in building a jet engine applies to building any kind of turbine engine.”
“We continue to perfect our CMC manufacturing processes and achieve improved economies in scale to offer even more value to our customers,” Meguiar says.
Which is why GE Aviation continues to soar to ever new heights to satisfy customer needs.