Sunday, July 18, 2004

GE's X FACTOR


A dream team in Evendale says it has the right stuff to power Boeing's future superliner

By Mike Boyer
Enquirer staff writer

[photo]
Butch Demerle, an instructor at GE/Aircraft Engines Customer Technical Education Center, demonstrates performing a gap check on an airplane engine
Much of the buzz around General Electric's exhibit at this week's Farnborough International Air Show outside London will be over an engine that doesn't exist.

The GEnx, for GE Next Generation, is one of two new engines Boeing Co. has picked to power its planned 7E7 Dreamliner. It now resides largely in computer codes and digital designs at GE Transportation's headquarters in Evendale.

The GEnx, which borrows heavily from technology GE has developed for decades, won't actually be fired up for its first test until March 2006.

It isn't expected to enter service until 2008.

But Boeing's choice in April of the GEnx as one of two engines for the Dreamliner, was "enormous,'' said GE Transportation president Dave Calhoun.

Boeing's decision also had a direct affect on GEAE's employees.

GE chairman Jeff Immelt told shareholders in April that GEnx eventually could generate $60 billion in revenue for the company.

GEAE, which has struggled since the Sept. 11 attacks crippled the nation's airline industry, has about 250 engineers working on the engine now and expects to hire 160 engineers at Evendale in part to develop GEnx.

The Dreamliner, conceived as the 21st-century successor to the widebody 767 and 757 jets, will have a fuselage made of lightweight composite materials to reduce weight. As a result, Boeing says, the liner will be 20 percent more fuel efficient than the 767.

Boeing envisions building up to 3,000 twin-engine 7E7s during the next 20 years. Each will have 200-250 seats and fly such routes as Cincinnati to Tokyo.

After months of evaluation, Boeing picked the GEnx and a variant of Rolls Royce's Trent engine to power the 7E7. The loser in the competition was Pratt & Whitney, which proposed an entirely new engine design. Buyers of the 7E7 can choose the engine to equip their aircraft, so additional competition for GE and Rolls Royce lies ahead.

So far, four airlines have announced firm plans to buy the 7E7, but Boeing says more than two dozen have put down deposits on the jets and some may announce formal orders at Farnborough.

A long wait

GE and global partners including Snecma Moteurs in France, IHI in Japan and FiatAvio in Italy are investing billions of dollars to make the GENX a reality. The payoff could be huge.

Forecast International, the Newtown, Conn., aerospace analyst, estimates the engine market for the 7E7 will be worth more than $40 billion over the next 25 years.

Calhoun cautioned that GE and its partners must wait patiently for the return on their investment. Aerospace is a long-cycle business, requiring huge outlays up front that sometimes aren't returned in profits for decades.

"If things go as we hope, we'll collect our first dollar on this multibillion dollar investment about 24 years from now. That's how this business works,'' Calhoun said last week before leaving for Farnborough. The Farnborough show, which opens Monday and runs through July 25, is a major gathering place for the world's manufacturers of aircraft and their components, as well as buyers eager for an up-close view of the latest and greatest in aerospace gear.

But beyond the financial implications, GE needed its engines to be on the 7E7 simply to maintain its position in the market, he said.

The CF6 family of engines, which the GEnx is designed to replace, has been the backbone of GE's commercial business for more than three decades.

The family, introduced in 1971, has given GE the lion's share of the engine market for jets such as the Boeing 767, and the Airbus A300 and A330s, Calhoun said.

Without the GEnx to power the Dreamliners and other future wide-body aircraft, "that would have been a huge hit on the business," he said. "We had to win.''

Composite blades

British-based Rolls and GE are using different approaches to power the 7E7.

Rolls' variant of its Trent engine is called the Trent 1000. It will use hollow titanium fan blades and three separate shafts for the engine's high, medium and low-pressure turbines, which Rolls says will mean less engine wear.

The GEnx incorporates technology that GE is using on a commercial engine for the first time.

Like the GE90 before it, the GEnx will use fan blades made of lighter-weight composites rather than metal.

GE is the only major commercial engine builder to use composite fan blades rather than titanium, and they've been an unqualified success, says Thomas Brisken, GEnx general manager at Evendale.

Only two composite blades have failed in eight years of operation over more than 4.5 million hours of flight, he said.

To save weight and thus improve fuel efficiency on the GEnx, GE will also use composites in the case surrounding the engine fan.

"That will take 400 pounds out of the case structure. That's a really big step forward for us,'' said Brisken.

GE has used composite fan cases on military engines, but the GEnx will be the first commercial engine with one.

High bypass ratio

Brisken, a 1967 Moeller High School graduate who has worked at GE for 33 years, says engine efficiencies are expected to produce about three-quarters of the 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency Boeing is seeking.

Almost half of the GEnx improvement will come from using the highest-bypass ratio GE has ever employed in a commercial engine.

Modern turbofan engines are high-bypass, meaning most of the air passing through the fan goes around the compressor and combustor rather than through them to generate thrust. The GEnx will have a 9.5 bypass ratio, meaning about 9.5 times the amount of air will pass around the engine than through it.

The higher bypass ratio and higher overall engine pressure ratio will produce about 40 percent of the fuel efficiency improvements, Brisken says.

"The other 60 percent comes from taking each component to a better efficiency level,'' he said. "Most of it comes through better computer codes we have today in analyzing it.''

To validate those digital designs, GE is undertaking the most extensive component-testing program for a new engine in its history.

This year, GE is running 13 separate component rig tests to validate various design features for the new engine.

One example: the number of fan blades.

In the past, the company has used 22 fan blades in an engine. But Brisken said: "Our computational codes indicate 18 blades is more efficient."

So GE is running rig tests at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland on fans using 22, 20 and 18 blades to verify the most efficient design, he said.

Final design close

The culmination of the engine component testing will come in January, when GE and its partners set the final design for the engine.

That will trigger a flurry of activity as the project is turned over to design engineers for final drawings and manufacturing and sourcing managers begin ordering components for the seven engines in the engine certification program.

The GEnx program now employs about 250 engineers, but that number will rise to more than 400 early next year as the program moves toward running the first engine in 2006, Brisken said.

GE expects to complete engine certification tests in July 2007.

Assembly of the finished engines will be at GE's plant in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

But the final design won't end GE's testing of the GEnx.

Beyond Federal Aviation Administration certification, GE plans to run two of the test engines the equivalent of three years of operation to further verify the technology.

By doing that, Brisken said, GE can take the engines apart and look for wear or other ways to improve the engines before the first airline customers are scheduled to bring the engines in for their first maintenance checks about 2011 or 2012.

E-mail mboyer@enquirer.com




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