GE keeps focus on next-generation technology
After 28 years with General Electric Lorraine Bolsinger took over as president and CEO of GE Aviation Systems in October 2008. What a time to take the reins at a top-tier aerospace supplier, with the civil side of its business facing its most serious downturn in several generations.
But Bolsinger can see beyond the current gloom and is determined not to let short-term cash flow concerns drag the company down into a just-get-by mentality. “We have a mandate to grow this business and to do that we have to make sure that we maintain the operational excellence and discipline that GE is noted for,” she told AIN.
At the same time, she has also maintained and even increased the engineering budget for research-and-development work. “You can’t take a year off from this,” she explained. “I learned that in the engine business and it [R&D] would be an easy place to make cuts.”
GE has a strong heritage in pioneering engineering work, founded on its Global Research Center which was launched by the company’s illustrious founder Thomas Edison. The facility feeds proven new technologies out into the various GE companies and, according to Bolsinger, this has given a great advantage to the former Smiths Aerospace business which GE acquired a couple of years ago to create GE Aviation Systems.
Much of the effort lately has been on how to make wider use of composites and the GRC has been looking into new materials and manufacturing processes for structures such as fan cases and blades, nacelles and propellers, as well as for wing structures. Earlier this year, the emphasis on new technology paid off when GE Aviation Systems at last won the significant work package it had long sought on the new Airbus A350 airliner, for which it is making sections with wing trailing edges.
GE Aviation Systems is working with its GE engine partners on new-generation, slimline nacelles that would contribute to lowering fuel burn through reduced weight and drag, while at the same time also cutting turbofan noise. Bolsinger explained that these advances likely will result in a new approach to the interface between the nacelle and the pylon, as well as new exhaust nozzle plugs and acoustic treatments.
The new technology will also extend to integrate more electrical systems such as threat reversing and electrical de-icing into the nacelles.
In the field of primary and secondary power distribution, GE is developing new modular power units that can configure the power distribution system according to whether AC or DC power is required. The system can take into account an aircraft’s changing power needs over the course of a 30- or 40-year service life and allows operators to maintain efficiency.
GE’s overall goal is to achieve the highest possible level of system integration in propulsion systems, in aircraft electrical power and also in its contributions to avionics suites. Bolsinger heralded the success her division has had in advancing the benefits of open-architecture cockpit systems in Boeing’s new 787 airliner.
So is the former Smiths Aerospace business better off for having become part of GE and is the giant engine maker better off for having made the acquisition? “We have achieved a lot more than we anticipated, and we still see further opportunities,” said Bolsinger. “For instance, the former Smiths business was well known for its flight management system and now we have a new initiative to use this to push the agenda on air traffic management through the use of continuous descent that would reduce airspace congestion and increase traffic throughput partly from the legacy of our great FMS which can allow crews to maintain very precise flight paths. This alone could save 6 to 12 percent in fuel burn, just through changes in software and procedures.”
Like all aerospace firms, over the past year GE Aviation Systems has seen sales decline due to reductions in new civil aircraft production and also through cuts in aircraft utilization that have impacted its parts and product support business. “We haven’t hit the bottom yet,” concluded Bolsinger. “There is still potential for the downturn to continue into 2010.”
If anything, the industry downturn has whetted GE’s appetite for greater production efficiency. “We are now trying to run all the various GE businesses as we would the rest of the aviation supply chain and through new lean manufacturing initiatives we improved on-time delivery by 20 percent during the first quarter of 2009,” Bolsinger explained.