Power turbines may be a mature business, but they are also a booming one. This year General Electric received record orders for jet engines, and because natural gas is currently cheap, worldwide demand is increasing for gas turbines used in power plants, says Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s chairman and CEO. To compete, the company is introducing new products based on innovations such as improved composites for fan blades and resilient alloys that allow for high-temperature, efficient operation. But at least as important from a competitive perspective are advances in the technology used to make turbines, which can lower costs and make new designs possible.
At GE’s global research headquarters in Niskayuna, New York, researchers are working on a new machining tool that uses a combination of a cutting disk and an electrical arc. The tool cuts through high-strength alloys three times as fast as the conventional alternatives, and it reduces energy consumption by 25 percent, bringing down manufacturing costs. Since it uses less force than conventional machining, the technology also makes it possible to conceive of new designs that might otherwise break during the process.
On the factory floor at a gas turbine plant in Greenville, South Carolina, GE has recently installed a machine that precisely cuts cooling holes in turbine blades using 50,000-psi jets of water. The holes allow the turbines to run at higher temperatures and efficiencies. The factory also uses relatively new, high-powered fiber lasers that can reduce four-hour welding jobs to less than a minute. And a new $170 million test facility generates mountains of data that can be used to improve manufacturing further.
At a factory in Durham, North Carolina, one jet engine assembler, Scott West, developed a system that suspends a jet engine and dolly weighing seven tons on a thin cushion of air, so that two to four workers can move the engines where the task previously required six. The technology is projected to save GE $156,000 a year. West is now extending the technology to other parts of the manufacturing line.
“We’ve always believed that GE can be a high-tech exporter,” Immelt told workers at the factory in Greenville. “Every unit that we manufacture in the site this year is going to be exported.”