The LEAP engine program of CFM International* isn’t just a history-maker in commercial aviation because of its record sales.

The approach to building that many engines is also making manufacturing breakthroughs.

The number of LEAP engine orders and commitments to date has reached more than 16,300 turbofans valued at over $236 billion, just 10 years after the program was originally launched.

In preparation for the upswing in engine parts production, GE Aviation announced plans in 2014 to open the jet propulsion industry’s first facility to mass produce additive components — the fuel nozzle tip to begin with — in Auburn, Alabama.

Meanwhile, two GE business units, Aviation and Digital, teamed up in 2017 to digitally transform its Muskegon, Michigan, manufacturing operations around machine data. There, digital tools are used to improve the performance of shop floor machines making parts for the LEAP engine and critical parts for other engine programs.

“With the pure volume of what’s coming at us, we had to do something to change the manufacturing game,” said Kevin Prindable, plant leader for GE Aviation Muskegon.

Boosted by record engine sales from the LEAP engine and other products, GE Aviation has also invested billions to expand its supply chain to meet a historic production ramp-up, entering new educational partnerships to train its growing workforce.

For National Manufacturing Month, here is a deeper dive into how new manufacturing technologies are helping one of America’s largest manufacturers meet aviation’s biggest backlog of engine orders ever.

ONE — ADDITIVE

Additive manufacturing involves using computer-aided designs to “print” a part from metal powder, layer by layer.

The LEAP engine’s fuel nozzle tip is made using this 3D printed process, which is also sometimes called direct metal laser melting. Using this method, the number of parts in a single fuel nozzle tip went from about 20 pieces previously welded together to one whole piece, reducing the nozzle tip’s weight by about 25 percent.

Above: Under the additive manufacturing method, the number of parts in a single fuel nozzle tip was reduced from about 20 pieces previously welded and brazed together to one whole piece. Top: Darlene Green, a manufacturing specialist, in Muskegon, MI. The Muskegon facility produces high-pressure nozzles and shrouds for commercial and military aircraft engines, including the LEAP product.

In Auburn, GE Aviation’s additive manufacturing plant now has more than 40 printing machines expected to make about 25,000 fuel nozzles in 2018. Production has exceeded 30,000 nozzles since the plant opened in 2015.

“Additive has allowed us to shorten the manufacturing cycle time by 40 percent, and improve yields significantly,” said Ricardo Acevedo, plant leader for GE Aviation Auburn.

Each additively manufactured nozzle tip also has a digital version created. These digital copies maintain a record of what each individually produced part looks like for future quality inspections and review, something made possible by the computerized designs created for additive machines.

In addition to the fuel nozzle, GE Aviation has dedicated more than 35 engine parts to be produced additively to support some of its biggest commercial engine programs including LEAP, GE9X and GEnx.

TWO — DIGITAL

GE Aviation’s facilities in Muskegon make high-pressure nozzles and shrouds for commercial and military aircraft engines, including the LEAP product.

To increase parts production for the LEAP engine, the facilities added over 30 percent more equipment. The maintenance workforce grew approximately 12 percent and harnessed new digital tools to operate the added machinery.

With GE Digital, GE Aviation introduced an Asset Performance Management (APM) system on its LEAP parts line to model machine data. Learnings gleaned from the APM system helped maintenance crew keep up with machine conditions and even provide predictive maintenance recommendations with the help of data. Data were also gathered from 260 machines connected to the LEAP product line and those machines’ historical performance to feed the predictive models.

First-time yield for products has increased, leading to fewer parts needing additional steps to meet requirements. With more parts coming off the production line right the first time, parts are being produced faster at lower cost. Rework in Muskegon factories is now less than 1 percent, compared to 8 to 10 percent before.

“Our team has worked hard to become very good at solving ‘line of sight’ problems. APM is helping us go beyond that and to ‘see around corners’ to solve problems we previously wouldn’t have been able to and to solve problems that previously we wouldn’t have even recognized as problems,” Kevin Prindable, the Muskegon plant leader, said.

THREE — CAPACITY

More raw material is needed for LEAP engine parts, and GE is opening factories to produce the material itself. For example, a new production complex is being opened in Huntsville, Alabama, to mass produce ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), an advanced material containing silicon carbide fibers. The advanced material is lightweight and heat resistant. Each new LEAP engine has 18 CMC turbine shrouds.

When GE Aviation opened its more than $110 million, 300,000-square foot facility in Lafayette, Indiana, in 2015, it coordinated with two Indiana institutions – Ivy Tech at Lafayette and Purdue University – on a co-enrollment program that trains students to fill the plant’s emerging talent needs. Lafayette employees help make the hot section or core—the compressor, combustor and high-pressure turbine—for the LEAP engine.

In total, GE Aviation investments reached $4.3 billion for expanding U.S. operations during 2011 to 2016 with another $1.1 billion invested in its international sites. The U.S. investments established five new plants in Ellisville, Mississippi; Auburn, Alabama; Asheville, North Carolina; Lafayette, Indiana; and Huntsville, Alabama. Existing operations were also upgraded, including expansions in West Jefferson, North Carolina; Muskegon, Michigan; and Hooksett, New Hampshire. Centers for emerging technologies have been started, such as additive manufacturing, digital engine monitoring, ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and electrical distribution.

*CFM International is a 50/50 joint venture of GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.