GE Aviation laser technology powers innovation at Alabama jet engine plant

GE Booth, Paris Air Show, June 18, 2013.
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AUBURN, Alabama — A new GE Aviation plant in Auburn will use Star Wars-like laser technology to help the industry giant produce critical jet engine components at a time when global demand for aircraft is projected to surge.

Inside the GE Aviation plant in Auburn, workers use powerful lasers to drill miniscule cooling holes in jet engine blades made from heat-resistant super alloys. Placed inside a high-pressure turbine, the blades squeeze air to immense pressures prior to ignition.

GE Aviation says these blades must be crafted into flawless aerodynamic shapes, and the tiny laser-drilled cooling holes perform the important function of allowing air to bleed in so the blades can withstand the incredible temperatures they encounter during operation.

“This is one of the critical and sophisticated components in our jet engines,” says GE Aviation CEO David Joyce. “They are perfectly shaped aerodynamically, with laser-drilled cooling holes because they operate at extraordinary temperatures. We consider them a work of art.”

Gov. Robert Bentley and other Alabama officials were meeting with Joyce today at the show, along with executives of other companies including Raytheon and Boeing, both of which have substantial operations in Huntsville.

The advanced manufacturing plant in Auburn, which officially opened in April, is just one of the new facilities that GE Aviation is bringing online as it prepares to meet sharply increased demand from aircraft makers. In a new 20-year forecast, Boeing Co. projects demand for more than 35,000 aircraft, worth $4.8 trillion, across the globe.

More planes means more engines will be needed from GE Aviation and other makers.

GE Aviation is returning to the Paris Air Show after a rewarding campaign at the 2011 show, when it recorded $27 billion in deals, with a considerable portion of that for the next-generation, fuel-sipping LEAP engines for Airbus A320neo planes. The CFM International joint venture between GE Aviation and partner Snecma (Safran Group) make the LEAP engine, which will be available on Airbus A320 family aircraft made in Alabama beginning in 2015.

GE Aviation says the new Alabama facility underscores the company’s unprecedented growth, as production rates area expected to grow from 3,600 commercial and military engine deliveries in 2013 to more than 3,800 deliveries in 2014.

“This new sweet home in Alabama joins the growing GE Aviation family of production plants at an exciting point in our history,” Joyce says.

The Auburn plant, with its powerful lasers, also highlights the advanced approach that GE Aviation is taking to the manufacturing process.

“Manufacturing workers will soon be like Jedi Knights, wielding laser tools that cut, weld, and scribe advanced metal and ceramic materials into complex parts,” says Hongqiang Chen, lead laser processing engineer at GE Global Research. “Advanced manufacturing has arrived and we’re beginning to see laser technologies move from specialty applications to common tools used by workers on the plant floor.”

GE Aviation has invested $75 million in the Auburn plant. By the end of this year, it should have 50 workers, according to the company. Once it hits full production later this decade, GE Aviation expects to have 300 to 400 workers in Auburn.

Mayor Bill Ham, who has traveled to the Paris Air Show this week, said he hopes the presence of GE Aviation in the east Alabama city will help it land other companies in the aerospace/aviation sector.

“When you get a name like GE Aviation and get into the aviation business, it just opens up tremendous opportunities for you,” Ham says. “We feel GE Aviation will be our cornerstone.”

Auburn has had great success landing automotive parts suppliers recently and has nine different nations represented in its technology parks, so Ham thinks adding a robust aerospace/aviation sector to the area’s economy would be a natural fit. He is meeting with companies at the air show this week in an effort to do just that.

“We hope to be a leader in the aviation and aerospace industry,” Ham says. “We’re going to work hard on it.”

The first high-pressure turbine airfoils produced at the 300,000-square-feet Auburn facility are expected to be delivered this year. The precision, super-alloy machined parts made at the Alabama plant will power future commercial and military aircraft, as well as supporting the vast fleet of GE jet engines already in service.