Applied Science: Futuristic Microfactories Bring Next-Gen Jet Engines to Life

June 24, 2013

So you’ve developed a revolutionary new material that could take hundreds of pounds off a jet engine and save millions in costs, but now what? “We invent these fantastic new technologies and processes, but then we have to navigate the challenges that come with effectively scaling them up for production,” says Robert McEwan, general manager for new product introduction at GE Aviation.

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That’s why McEwan’s business together with GE Global Research set up a cluster of manufacturing boot camps designed to get innovations in shape for mass production. They call them “microfactories” and the facilities are already working on technologies ranging from advanced composites to robotics and 3-D printing. “The purpose of these microfactories is to bridge the gap between investment and production,” McEwan says. “When we plan to introduce a new technology into our engines, we need to make sure that we have the right equipment, the right processes and the right people to produce it, scale it, and make it mature.”

Tom Mantkowski leads the turbine airfoil microfactory in Cincinnati, Ohio, and his team developed a new way to drill a complex system of cooling holes in the twisting blades of jet engine turbines. The team designed the process, started running samples of 150 parts, and over several months brought “first-time yield” to 90 percent. At that point they moved the manufacturing equipment to the production plant. “We have a lot of front end capabilities that manufacturing shops do not,” Mantkowski says. “When we’re working on new technologies, we can bridge the gap between development and manufacturing.”