Paris Air Show

GE and Smiths already in sync

 - June 16, 2007, 12:31 AM

Barely a month has passed since what formerly traded as Smiths Aerospace formally became General Electric Aviation Systems at the closing of the U.S. engine maker’s $4.8 billion acquisition of the business. But according to the new division’s president, Dr. John Ferrie, the new partners don’t have time to sit around chatting over future strategy; they’re too busy working on high-gear programs and advancing their prospective roles on several future platforms.

“There is no great overlay between what the companies do and the systems business will essentially continue as it is with no real physical integration [with General Electric Aero Engines],” Ferrie told Aviation International News last week. Former Smiths executives and their new GE colleagues have been told plainly that there is no time to be lost with protracted internal dialog and that the show must go on, albeit with an increasingly “common face” being shown to the customer despite the markedly different business models that support the way aircraft engines and systems are purchased.

Nonetheless, with the advance of electrical power in modern aircraft and their systems, the new GE division is convinced that it is well placed to seize new opportunities through its ability to distribute power from generation to the end loads. Combined with the continuing trend among airframers to integrate equipment selection, GE sees its new-found systems capability as a timely strategic move.

The former Smiths subsidiary produces flight management systems, airborne platform computing systems, power generation, conversion and distribution products, as well as actuation and flight control systems, thrust reversers, landing gear equipment and engine components. “Our knowledge of all domains of the aircraft brings tremendous strength,” commented Ferrie.

The extensive role of GE Aviation Systems on Boeing’s soon-to-roll-out 787 Dreamliner represents a step change for the company, which has taken on much greater financial and technical risk in developing systems, such as high-lift landing gear for the program. The 787 is based on a ground-breaking open-architecture approach to systems integration that Ferrie claimed has delivered “huge benefits” in terms of lower weight and cost. “The applications are housed on common networks but there is still significant freedom in the software, which avoids the need for expensive rewrites when something needs to be changed,” he explained.

Participation in the rival Airbus A380 development has seen it adopting a comprehensive systems-based approach to its tasks. According to the company, its equipment has so far delivered all its promised functionality during intensive flight testing.

The more holistic approach to systems integration is expected to step up one or more levels with the new A350XWB, for which Airbus is soon to name key strategic partners. The GE business is now discussing with the European airframer possible new offerings in the realm of electrics, landing gear, cockpit systems and high-lift devices. Airbus, seeking to quickly learn lessons from serious development delays with the A380, has pledged to involve key program partners sooner and to expect more from them. Key systems selections are due to be made within a few months.

Ferrie said that the civil aircraft arena now presents several other opportunities for GE Aviation Systems. High on its agenda are the new narrow-bodied replacements for the 737 and A320 workhorses that, respectively, Boeing and Airbus have in mind.

But just as the airframers need engine makers to deliver a substantial technological leap forward in terms of powerplant performance to make these programs viable, there are also high expectations of other prospective Tier One suppliers. “The economics [for the new narrow-bodies] are paramount,” explained Ferrie. “The price point for these aircraft puts extreme demands on the systems.” This is expected to result in different systems architectures being designed and previously unseen levels of technology that is already in the preliminary design phase.

The company is also looking eastward to planned regional airliner developments from the Chinese aerospace industry, which may well be seeking advanced Western systems capability to make the great leap forward that it is poised to take. And in the thriving business aviation sector, the new GE group hopes to announce its selection for a new jet development. “We are very keen to explore new business aviation platforms because the application of integrated systems has a lot of appeal there,” said Ferrie.

GE Aviation Systems is also busy in the military field, with its engineers currently involved in Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter (for which it has taken the lead on actuation systems) and the C-130 AMP military transport development. The company already has a significant physical presence in the key U.S. marketplace (now representing about 60 percent of its activities) and the connection with General Electric can only serve to convince the Pentagon procurement machine of its deep American roots.

Finally, to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest through its direct ownership by General Electric, the new division has separated out its engine components business and this will now trade under the brand Unison Engine Components. This will allow it to continue working closely with other leading engine manufacturers.