GE Aviation Systems has been quietly making the most of the downturn to plan an assault on aerospace markets dominated by other companies. While General Electric is one of the big three aero-engine manufacturers, in areas such as avionics and power systems, where it has grown partly through acquisition, it recognizes a need to be bold and innovative so as to take on the likes of Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Thales in avionics and market-leader Hamilton Sundstrand in power systems.
GE has therefore bucked the trend in the recession to build its presence, invest heavily in research and technology (R&T) and ready itself for possible systems integrator roles on major aircraft programs. Lorraine Bolsinger, president and CEO of GE Aviation Systems, told AIN that more than five years ago GE identified a desire to “grow beyond engines so as to lever the brand recognition and the scale we have. “
After Bolsinger joined the company towards the end of 2008, GE’s strategy has moved towards integration of disparate business units, and growth. It identified “anchor technologies” and organized systems into mechanical, avionics, electrical power and those covered by Unison Industries (for example, starters, wiring harnesses and ducting).
The battle to win future major roles on commercial and military platforms has seen a trebling of R&T spend in four years and aggressive bidding in the market. Bolsinger said that “instead of shying away” in the downturn, the company got the green light from GE’s central leadership to build for a far larger future presence in systems.
The company has set up an Electrical Power Integration Centre (EPIC) at Cheltenham in the UK and “just broke ground on one in Dayton, Ohio,” Bolsinger said. “We want to put the integrator on aircraft and although we are a smaller player on the civil side, the customers have said that they want an alternative. But it’s hard if you’re not on a civil platform already with an entire integrated system...and no manufacturer wants to be the first to try you. “Effectively, GE is looking to emulate rival Pratt & Whitney, which has its engine division, and also Hamilton Sundstrand (its UTC sister company) by taking a large integrator role in partnership with primes such as Boeing. But it needed to establish a way to prove itself and reduce risk for the prime.
“So we decided that we had to build a lab–in fact, we built two–so that we can build a virtual airplane,” she said, to simulate the entire electrical power system on an aircraft. The new $51 million center is based on the University of Dayton Campus (close to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) and will “focus on advanced power starter/generation, conversion and distribution technologies for civil and military applications,” said the company. The center will open in the third quarter of 2012.
The electrical power unit also includes specializations in electromagnetic interference–to manage electrical “noise”–and silicon carbide, which promised to allow faster switching and lower temperatures, which means less weight.
Comac 919 Contract “A Huge Step”
Winning a contract from China’s Avic group to form a joint venture to develop the integrated, open-architecture avionics system for the new Comac 919 airliner was “a huge step,” said Bolsinger. It followed the selection of the CFM Leap-X engine for the aircraft, CFM being a GE/Snecma joint venture.
“This is very exciting for us as it will be the first airplane on which we deliver,” said Bolsinger. “The open architecture systems will also be available to other manufacturers, such as Airbus and Embraer,” she continued, admitting that GE is taking on the other avionics manufacturers head-on, but also accepts it may sometimes play a smaller role, in “hosted functions, which will make us stronger anyway.”
Also with avionics is what Bolsinger describes as “two interesting digital service plays”: the first is ATM and the second is IVHM (integrated vehicle health monitoring). With ATM, GE purchased Naverus in 2009 and is now aggressively pushing the need for RNP approaches.
“These can be implemented fairly quickly,” Bolsinger told AIN. “We made a study for the FAA, looking mainly at second-tier airports across the U.S. If you put RNP approaches in for example Seattle or New Orleans, the results would be phenomenal, saving 13 million gallons of fuel a year ($65.6 million a year in fuel burn costs), which equated to 275 million pounds of CO2, or 350 days of flight time.”
GE has now deployed some 350 RNP approaches around the world, mostly outside the US. The latest contract win was in China, announced here yesterday for Jiuzhai airport, in Sichuan Province.
With IVHM the aim is “to give customers better, prognostic warnings and help turn unplanned maintenance into planned maintenance, “ thus avoiding cancellations. We are working on a proof of concept with Southwest Airlines,” said Bolsinger. The company is also working on business jet applications but is not ready to announce anything as yet.