Business Report

GE Develops Manufacturing Tools to Improve Jet Engines

During a recent tour, General Electric showed off a slew of manufacturing and production innovations aimed at staying competitive in one of its core businesses.

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.

Power source: The blades of a 140-megawatt gas turbine are exposed during assembly at a GE factory in Greenville, South Carolina.

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.”

Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Business Impact
Advanced Manufacturing

How technology advances are changing the economy and providing new opportunities in many industries.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.
  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.