Ohio-based GE Aviation announced the $200 million project for the factories at a press briefing today at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The two manufacturing centers are expected to employ up to 300 people when fully operational.
One of the Alabama plants will be the first large-scale facility in the United States to produce silicon carbide (SiC) ceramic fiber. The adjacent GE factory will use the SiC ceramic fiber to produce a unidirectional tape necessary to fabricate advanced ceramic matrix composite components, or CMCs, for jet engines and land-based gas turbines.
“Establishing the new GE factories in Alabama is a very significant step in developing the supply chain we need in order to produce CMC components in large volume,” said Sanjay Correa, vice president of GE Aviation’s CMC Program.
With one-third the density of metal alloys, CMCs reduce overall engine weight, while their high-temperature properties greatly enhance engine performance, durability and fuel economy. Scientists at GE have worked for more than 20 years to develop CMCs for commercial use.
“Today’s announcement is important because Alabama is expanding our partnership with a global aviation leader,” Governor Robert Bentley said. “We have prioritized advanced manufacturing in aerospace and aviation, and I appreciate the investment by GE Aviation in this new Huntsville operation.”
Construction of the plants is expected to begin in mid-2016, with full completion by the first half of 2018. Production will begin later that year. GE is now assembling the technical team that will transfer to the Huntsville operation. It will begin hiring hourly workers late next year.
Alabama officials say the recruitment of GE Aviation began about 18 months ago under the code name “Project Badge.”
GE officials said the Huntsville site was selected based on its location, the available workforce, the potential for university partnerships, and infrastructure costs. The plants will stand on 100 acres in Limestone County, within the city limits of Huntsville.
“With Alabama’s aviation and aerospace sector adding new capabilities, it has been one of our goals to more fully penetrate all levels of the industry supply chain,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “GE Aviation’s plan to mass produce the raw material for ceramic jet engine components in Huntsville positions Alabama for a more significant role in that supply chain at a time when the Southeastern aerospace corridor is growing rapidly.”
GE Aviation already has a growing presence in Alabama.
The company operates a 300,000-square-foot facility in Auburn that produces high-pressure airfoils and is being prepared to turn out a fuel nozzle using breakthrough additive manufacturing technology. The nozzle will be first 3-D printed jet engine component to be produced in high volumes by GE Aviation, a pioneer in the field.
The ceramic fiber plant in Huntsville – supported by a $21.9 million in funding from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory – will dramatically increase U.S. capability of producing SiC material capable of withstanding temperatures reaching 2,400 degrees. The only other plant of its kind is in Japan.
The adjacent plant will apply coatings to the ceramic fiber and form them into a matrix to produce CMC tape. The ceramic tape will be used at a GE Aviation facility North Carolina that fabricates CMC shrouds for the next-generation LEAP engine.
In addition, prototype CMC components are being tested in GE’s large gas turbines to replace super alloys.
“GE is an innovation company. Huntsville is an innovation city,” Huntville Mayor Tommy Battle said. “This announcement by GE is the latest chapter in that history of innovation. The products that will be manufactured here represent the future of aerospace. We are proud that Huntsville will help GE change the way we travel through the skies.”
GE Aviation says the demand for CMCs is expected to grow tenfold over the next decade. Each LEAP engine has 18 CMC turbine shrouds, which are stationary parts in the high-pressure turbine that direct air and ensure turbine blade efficiency.