The last Le Bourget air show produced a sensational CFM commercial success, surpassing all expectations for the GE Aviation and Safran joint venture: 1,658 LEAP and CFM56 engines (for a staggering total value of 27.3 billion dollars) ordered only during the Paris show, practically doubling the previous total orders pending, which now, for 2017, has reached 2,850 engines.
For this pair of engines, therefore, we’re talking about a rise in production of circa 800 units between 2018 and 2020, and for LEAP especially – powering the brand-new Airbus planes (the new A320 family with the -1A version, the COMAC C919 with the -1C version) and an absolute exclusive with Boeing (with the 737MAX using the -1B version) – all this adds up to a massive extra manufacturing effort. But these are volumes with which Avio Aero is already familiar, being responsible for the production of this record-breaking engine’s combustion chamber and various components for its low-pressure turbine. By 2020, in other words, we foresee having to construct and deliver to airframers – and then airlines from a large number of different countries – roughly 2,100 engines per year… beginning with 1,200 in 2018 and continuing the ramp-up from there. Few weeks ago, in Le Bourget, we had the chance to get an insight about this unprecedented volumes challenge from the LEAP Product Marketing General Manager, Sandrine Lacorre: "raising production rates to these levels in such a short period of time has never been done in the industry. To meet this target, all the CFM employees as well as our suppliers are fully dedicated to deliver all the requested engines at the best quality level".
We can calmly say that our factories are ready to face this situation… indeed, the history of this Polish-Neapolitan collaboration (i.e. between our centers of excellence for the manufacture of turbine blades in Bielsko Biala, in Poland, and Pomigliano, Naples, Italy) goes back to about 2013. That year, various expert manufacturing engineers from Pomigliano – from the Airfoils CoE – worked for long periods in the Bielsko factory. Side-by-side with Polish engineers and technicians. This cooperative collaboration has been consolidated over time, involving the manufacturing specialties of these two plants, with all the usual necessary exchanges of good practices and know-how.
“It was during that time that we counted on our colleagues from Pomigliano to learn from their experience with the CFM56 program, which is effectively the predecessor of LEAP, and we worked full-out to design and implement innovative lines for the production of vanes for the LEAP engine’s LPT”, explains Wojciech Korczyk, Senior Manufacturing Engineer at Bielsko Biala. Avio Aero is in fact responsible for the production of the stator vanes for the LEAP engine (in all its versions), for stages 3, 4, and 5. So in Bielsko Biala new lines were activated, dedicated to the brand-new program which carries out EDM processes (electro discharge machining, an electroerosion process performed by extremely “advanced” machinery) as well as Coordinate-measuring machine (CMM).
Currently there are eight operative modern lines for LEAP blades in Bielsko, with another two in the process of installation: these are able to satisfy a demand for 11 engines per week, and to reach peaks of 13 engines… which means a thousand parts per week (which in aviation is a really major challenge). “We never cease working on process improvement, applying and sharing with Pomigliano our LEAN manufacturing practices or tools”, comments Michał Warda, who is Manufacturing Engineer dedicated to the program. “This is an aspect that must always be kept in mind on this particular program, given the surge in volumes that is happening, and everything else that may yet follow. We have to anticipate events.” And that’s what we’ve done. These new lines lead to a series of benefits which clearly improve manufacturing performance: 3 machines now perform tasks that used to need 6, reducing costs and factory space needed. Along with reductions come increases, such as those in professional expertise: an operator working in a new LEAP cell is more highly skilled and capable of handling multiple operations on the same machine with a modern interface. “Just think” – comments Wojciech proudly – “at the beginning we used to calculate the time for certain parts to reach the end of the line in terms of months: today we think in terms of days!”
The new LEAP lines are incredible: in minimal space they carry out numerous operations, they’re so clean and luminous that you’d think they were medical machines… and they’re environmentally friendly! Plus they have an elevated level of automation: in Poland there are currently 4 lines served by robots which, when commanded by the operator, load and unload the parts queuing up for various work processes and checks along the long line that leads to their completion. Even the EDM machines come with an automatic system which enables the machinery to signal and manage various work-tools used for corrections, post-wear substitutions or changes. The new lines also provide another advantage in terms of space, and above all in terms of heat generated: a new system for cooling and filtering (for self-cleaning machinery) which instead of being traditionally installed on every manufacturing unit, is situated outside the factory. A wall is attached directly to the building’s perimeter, where a large cooling system serves all the cells.
Pomigliano works as a support hub for the intense demand from customers: currently, roughly 15% of the entire stator blade production takes place in Campania, in order to guarantee maximum delivery reliability. “Since last year, we have invested approximately 6 million euros and we now have two lines that are functional and ready, and a third will be finished by March of next year”, explains Nicola Trey, Manufacturing Specialist with the Airfoils CoE in Pomigliano. We have a long-running collaborative tradition with Bielsko, and naturally we have weekly long-distance encounters and updates. We are continuing to prepare ourselves to handle volumes which will decisively boost our second source support percentage for clients that need punctual LEAP engine delivery. Currently our manufacturing activity relates to LPT 4° and 5° stages for the -1A and -1C versions, but by year’s end we will also be ready for the 3° stage of the -1B version.”
Order volumes are shooting upwards, and so is the unprecedented manufacturing commitment for a civil aviation program: “We feel pretty good about the ramp-up. It’s not an extrapolation, it’s an interpolation. It is game on and we are ready” stated David Joyce, CEO di GE Aviation, a few weeks ago at Le Bourget. We can peacefully say that we know that our Italian and Polish engineers, logistic teams, technicians, programmers and operators are ready to take their places on the playing field. They’ve already done their warm-ups.