There are few industries that can claim to have as far reaching of an audience as the aviation industry.
Whether it’s commercial airliners soaring up above in the sky, cargo planes moving shipments of goods all around the world, or military jets zooming through the air thousands of miles away performing operatives, the components inside them that make them go are what defines the entire industry. So, when a new technology emerges that is set to redefine the efficiency and effectiveness of the way these planes fly, it’s big news.
Enter GE-Aviation and their revolutionary, ready-to-manufacture ceramic matrix composites that are set to be installed in the next line of GE Aviation’s jet engines. In a conversation with Steve Engelhardt, Michael Meguiar plant manager of the new manufacturing facility where the components will be produced, talks about their significance to the aviation industry, how it impacts the future of flying, and the efforts it took to get to where they are today.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
“Ceramic matrix components are one of the most innovative, game-changing products not only in GE Aviation, but in the aviation industry as a whole,” Meguiar says.
In fact, he likens the change to when the aviation industry made the switch from wood and fabric parts in planes to metal components way back when. “That’s really the kind of evolution we’re going through right now in terms of exotic metal alloys moving towards ceramic matrix composites.” Set to be installed in the “hot section” of jet engines, ceramic matrix composites offer a component that is much lighter and perform at higher temperatures. Ultimately, this will lead to weight reductions and our ability to run the engine hotter, resulting in significant fuel savings for airlines.
“This material is going to completely change our industry in terms of performance, weight of the engine, durability, fuel consumption, and fuel efficiency for our customers,” Meguiar says, noting that, “we’re the first to be able to do this.”
Meguiar says that this technological development for his organization is similar in significance to when they launched composites on their GE90 engines in the early 90s, or when they developed the GEnx engine in 2004. “Those were game changers for us and the industry then, and here we are at that level again as we close in on putting ceramic matrix composites on LEAP engines,” he says.
But, specifically, just how big of an impact will it have on GE Aviation’s product line and the aviation industry as a whole? Meguiar says that this year, they plan to ship nearly 4,100 engines, with 90 percent of those being legacy engines, or to put it in simpler terms, preexisting models already in use such as the CF6, CFM, and the GE90. By 2020, however, they plan to significantly increase the integration of their NPI (New Product Introduction) models, particularly that of the LEAP and GE9X engines with the new ceramic matrix composites. “We’re developing these new engines with CMC’s today with the plan that by 2020, they will account for 70 percent of our volume engines,” he says.
Investing in the Future
The breakthrough technology this time around, incubated at GE’s global research lab in Newark, Del., came from what Meguiar says is a combination of factors. “The investments we make today are always geared towards improving the future, whether that be 10, 20, or even 30 years down the road. The CFM engine is really the workhorse engine of today, and we’re betting, and are pretty confident in doing so, on the fact that the LEAP engine with integrated CMC’s, which we already have 4,500 orders in place for, will eventually take its place as the leading engine solution in the industry.”
With the new technology now ready to be produced in high volume, GE Aviation needed to ensure that the facility they would be operating out of was as up to date as the products they’d be manufacturing inside it. Their manufacturing facility in Asheville, N.C., was about 190,000 square feet, but in response they have terminated the lease on a portion of the building, which accounts for about half of that space, and recently broke ground to begin construction on their new facility. The new manufacturing facility, whose groundbreaking ceremony was attended by state, local, and company officials, will be 170,000 square feet and, when combined with the preexisting machining plant next to it, the total size of the entire manufacturing location will come out to be about 250,000-260,000 square feet.
With the expansion of the facilities, Meguiar says that the number of employees working in the facility, which currently totals 290, will increase to more than 340 over the next five years. All of this growth is part of a greater commitment that GE Aviation has made to the state of North Carolina as a whole. In fact, by 2017, GE Aviation will have invested almost $200 million into facilities located in not only Asheville, but in the cities of Durham, and Wilmington as well.
Leveraging the Locals
These locations and the individuals working at them, particularly at the Ashevillle facility, weren’t chosen simply by drawing a random name out of a hat. Meguiar says that there was a long, drawn-out site selection process, and he credits Asheville’s proven talent level, spirited innovation, and pos- session of ‘Can-do’ attitudes as the deciding factors for the city’s nomination. “Asheville truly has the type of workforce we need, and they deserve a huge amount of credit for this work being awarded to them,” he says.
The combination of a skilled local populace along with GE Aviation’s innovation and advanced technology created a ‘perfect storm’ for what’s going to be needed at the Asheville facility, in terms of manufacturing, Meguiar says. It took a team effort for the project to come to fruition, and he says that “without the help of our local Buncombe County, as well as advocates at the state level, I’m not sure we would have been able to pull it off. Everyone came together, and I think the result will be everything we were looking for and needed in terms of manufacturing the CMC’s efficiently and effectively.”
In terms of the actual manufacturing process, the CMC’s are set to be installed in the next generation LEAP engine, the engine that goes on the wing on the plane. At the facility, they’re going to be making high-pressure turbine shrouds made of CMC’s. “We’ve gotten to the point where we can industrialize the process so we can make high volume quantities for the LEAP engine,” Meguiar says, adding that, “we’re starting with the LEAP engine, which is the next generation CFM, and from there we plan evolving the CMC shroud technology into other engine lines down the road.”
“I believe that GE Aviation’s talent level, our employees we have at these manufacturing plants, are truly our greatest asset,” Meguiar says, adding, “and that goes across the entire organization, from our global research center to our leans labs, our process engineers, our operational technicians, and really, most importantly, our hourly technicians here on the ground in Asheville making parts.”
Anytime a technology comes around as sophisticated and impactful as ceramic matrix composites are set to be, having the right personnel on the production ground and working in a facility capable of handling all their needs is a must. It appears that GE Aviation has set itself up to ensure that each of these factors will be as big a strength as the technology they’ll be manufacturing. Soaring into the future, ceramic matrix composites represent the tech of tomorrow, and it all will have happened in Asheville, N.C.