David Joyce, president and CEO of GE Aviation, spent the last the decade developing some of the world’s most advanced jet engines. His timing was perfect. Plane manufacturers estimate that the world aircraft fleet will double in size over the next 20 years to some 40,000 planes. Joyce now needs to make enough engines to meet the voracious demand.
This is a good problem to have. That’s why GE Aviation is opening two new advanced manufacturing plants this week, a composite factory in Ellisville, Mississippi and a “super-alloy” plant in Auburn, Alabama. GE has invested $130 million in the plants and plans to hire 550 workers by 2017.
Blade Runner: This GEnx-1B engine powers Boeing’s Dreamliner. GE workers manufacture the blades and the fan case from advanced carbon-fiber composites.
Much of the aircraft growth will come from single-aisle planes built by Boeing, Airbus, COMAC and other aircraft makers. This market needs next-generation jet engines like the LEAP, which GE Aviation makes in a joint-venture with France’s Snecma.
The new plants will make parts for the LEAP, the GEnx, and other advanced engines. The Ellisville plant will manufacture “composite fan platforms” that lock in the engine fan blades, and other composite structures. The platforms are made from carbon fiber composites, an advanced durable material much lighter than conventional metals. The material shaves pounds off the engine and helps customers save expensive jet fuel. “Carbon fiber composites have been around for some time, but it’s very hard to mass produce them consistently,” says Rick Kennedy, GE Aviation spokesman. “That’s the secret sauce and we’ve got it.”
GE is becoming one of the largest manufacturers of advanced composites in the U.S. The company now has four composite plants, including one in nearby Batesville, Mississippi, which already employs 350 workers. They make blades and fan cases for the GEnx jet engines that serve on Boeing’s Dreamliner and the new 747-8 passenger jet. In June GE will open another new factory that will produce ceramic matrix composites. These advanced, heat resistant materials serve inside jet engines and can work at temperatures as high as 2,400 F, beyond any advanced alloys. “We are in the process of revolutionizing the manufacturing of composites and jet engine design,” Kennedy says.
The new Auburn plant will manufacture super-alloy blades for high-pressure turbines. The blades squeeze air to titanic pressures prior to ignition. They are must be crafted to perfect aerodynamic shapes and sport tiny, laser-drilled cooling holes that “bleed in” air so they can withstand the temperatures in which they operate. “We think of them as a work of art,” says Joyce, who has trained as an aerospace engineer.
“This new sweet home in Alabama joins the growing GE Aviation family of production plants at an exciting point in our history,” Joyce says.