It’s an attempt to bring together the best features of three different countries. When General Electric decided to open an experimental factory a few years ago, its first step was to send some of its managers to a seminar on the Japanese Kaizen philosophy. Elissa Lee, an American, was eventually chosen to run the new plant. Her job is to optimize speed and efficiency.
When selecting the site, however, G.E. decided against both Japan and its homeland the United StatesInstead, the plant is unmistakably in the southern German state of Bavaria. Employees have even hung a photo of a dachshund on one of the robots.
General Electric decided back in 2007 that Germany would be the best place for a completely new process to develop and manufacture extremely lightweight low-pressure turbine blades for aircraft engines.
Germany offers superior engineering skills and automation expertise, and besides, the technology was originally developed in Bavaria, Ms. Lee explained. That’s why G.E. rented a building in the picturesque Bavarian city of Regensburg and invested a double-digit million-euro sum. The first blades made of titanium aluminide were delivered in 2013 and have been in use in Lufthansa’s Boeing 747–8 aircraft since April 2014.
“We've never done this before, developing the technology in the same place where it would later be produced.”
“This year, we are directing our focus to the industrialization of production,” said Ms. Lee, who notes that production will be increased to several thousand blades.
G.E. was entering new territory with the Regensburg project. “We’ve never done this before, developing the technology in the same place where it would later be produced,” said Ms. Lee. The strategy enabled GE to save time and speed up market introduction.
Titanium aluminide is a material with many potential applications, because it is very light and resistant to high thermal stress.
“But the material is also difficult to work with,” explained Thomas Jenter, the head of automation at the experimental plant. In its molten state, titanium aluminide attracts other elements, so that impurities are quickly introduced into the material. This explains why it’s been used on a smaller scale in valves and turbochargers for Formula One race cars, but not on a large scale in the aviation industry.
Weight and the ability to withstand stress are all-important in aircraft construction. Fuel represents the airlines’ biggest single expense, which is why engines need to become more efficient and aircraft more lightweight. In 1990, the German aviation fleet consumed an average of 6.3 liters (1.7 gallons) of kerosene per 100 kilometers (63 miles). By last year, that average had declined to 3.68 liters, and if the airlines have their way, the downward trend will continue.
The turbine blades produced in Regensburg weigh only about half as much as conventional turbines made of a nickel-based material and are extremely resilient. This is important, since turbine blades are among the components of the engine exposed to the highest levels of stress. They must be capable of withstanding the hot jet blast from the turbine.
To address the challenge, G.E. decided to industrialize a new manufacturing process originally designed by a division of MTU Aero Engines in Bavaria. The so-called “near net shape” manufacturing process requires less material, time and energy than conventional production processes. A new mold and crucible are made for each individual blade.
Because this was new territory for G.E., employees had to improvise. One employee, said Mr. Jenner, brought in his home aquarium, which was used to test whether the molds could be cooled in water.
G.E. is the world’s largest maker of aircraft engines. The blades produced in Regensburg are used in the GEnx engine (nx stands for next generation), which consumes up to 15 percent less fuel than conventional engines, due in part to its lighter-weight parts. Ms. Lee is convinced that “the prospects for growth are considerable at the Regensburg plant.” And although competitors have tried to copy the process, G.E.’s pioneering status in the market gives it an edge, she said.
Ms. Lee is confident that she will be able to continue attracting the specialists she needs in Regensburg. There is a lot of competition in the region, where a BMW plant is a draw for many engineers. But G.E. is also popular, partly because of its strong team orientation, said Ms. Lee. Besides, she added, the U.S.-based company is much better known in Germany than it once was, and the Upper Palatine region is an international melting pot because of its high concentration of universities and corporations.
“I hear more people speaking English in downtown Regensburg than in Munich,” she said.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.