But it’s been only in the last decade that its Business and General Aviation unit, which is building engines and other technology for private and business planes, decided to pay close attention to the multibillion-dollar turboprop market. “The turboprop segment has been underserved for decades,” says Brad Mottier, who runs the GE Aviation division. “Airframe customers and operators alike complained about the lack of innovation.”
This week, Mottier and his business said they are inviting the sharpest young engineers in the Czech Republic to help them transform the way we power small aircraft. The company will partner with Prague’s Czech Technical University (CVUT) to help bring up a new generation of aerospace engineers. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Steve King were present at the announcement.
Why Prague? The Czech capital is the place where GE decided to jump into the turboprop engine market in 2008, when it took a bet on a storied but struggling turboprop manufacturer, Walter Engines. Just like the Wright brothers, founder Josef Walter started out fixing and building bicycles before venturing into aviation. Established in 1911, his company ran aviation factories in Italy, Spain, Poland and elsewhere in Europe that produced record-breaking engines for planes used by 13 sovereign air forces.
After World War II, the government nationalized Walter, and the company spent the next four decades building some of the most successful engines serving in the Eastern Bloc and beyond. Still, years of communism and management problems took their toll and cost Walter many markets. When GE came in, the company was barely surviving. “The West moved on, and the industry here froze over,” says Milan Slapak, a manager at GE Aviation in Prague.
But it didn’t disappear. Rather, it moved into private backyards and garages. Slapak says that the Czech Republic’s engineers remained a “superpower” in ultralight aircraft, “which they could build at home,” he says. “There’s a deep pool of engineering talent here,” he adds. “It’s incredible what they’ve achieved.”
The European turboprop’s Cinderella comeback began with GE infusing technology and investment into what was Walter’s popular turboprop engine line. GE has spent the last decade importing advanced machines and technologies to Prague, and in 2016 announced plans to invest $400 million in Europe to build a powerhouse turboprop business. It also is developing, building and testing turboprop components in Italy, Poland and Germany.
GE first launched its H-Series H-80 engine line, squeezing more horsepower from Walter’s M601 machines and finding new customers in the U.S., China, Brazil and elsewhere. Next, it turned the volume of insights received from airframe customers and operators into the industry’s first “all-new, clean-sheet” turboprop engine in 30 years, the Advanced Turboprop, or ATP. “This is by far the biggest win of my 35-year career in aviation,” Mottier said.
The engine uses cooled turbine blades and components originally developed for supersonic jet engines. Digital engine controls, another innovation, allow the pilot to fly planes equipped with the ATP like a jet, with a single lever, which controls both the engine and the propeller. (Most turboprop-powered aircraft have multiple levers, making the aircraft more complicated to fly.) The ATP also will include 3D-printed parts. GE engineers started using this disruptive new technology in the last decade, and 3D-printed components will account for more than a third of the engine.
The infusion of additive manufacturing and jet propulsion know-how allowed GE engineers to shave off more than 100 pounds in weight from the ATP. The lighter weight will help reduce fuel burn by as much as 20 percent, give the engine 10 percent more power compared with engines in its class and simplify maintenance. Textron Aviation has selected the engine for its brand-new Cessna Denali plane. “This engine is a game changer,” says Paul Corkery, the general manager for the ATP.
Since GE’s 2016 announcement of its plans to assemble the ATP engine in Prague, the number of undergraduate students enrolled to study aircraft engine construction at CVUT jumped from one to 15. The interest was so intense that last year the school gave two GE engineers offices at the university. They set up shop at the school with the sole purpose of tutoring students and helping with research. “The new engine was a strong impulse that brought new students,” says Michael Valasek, dean of CVUT’s mechanical engineering school. “They can now see that studying aircraft engines has a future in this country.”
Valasek is keen on stoking this interest. Today, his department and GE said they will partner on aerospace research. GE will provide the university with engine data, access to Predix — its app-development platform for the industrial internet — and other know-how.
Students will use the technology and data to build digital twins of turboprop engines. These virtual models will enable pilots and maintenance crews to monitor the performance of each turboprop in real time and predict the best time for service and maintenance. “This technology exists for jet engines, but there’s nothing like it in the turboprop space,” Valasek says. “Pilots often feel when an engine is a little off, but when they take it in for service, maintenance crews can’t find anything wrong. It’s just like when you feel under the weather, but the doctor says that you are fine. Our digital twin will simulate conditions inside the engine and pinpoint problems before they manifest themselves.”
The digital twin’s software will combine and analyze the inputs for individual engines and allow operators to get more power out of them, extend their longevity and make them available for flying more often. “Just like a human being, every single engine is different, depending on operations,” Valasek says. “The digital twin will be able to run through thousands of combinations and flag potential problems. Humans would never be able to do this.”
To provide access to a steady supply of fresh data, GE also will help CVUT set up four test chambers to study turboprop engines on the ground, plus a “flying test bed,” a King Air aircraft modified to test engines and gather data in flight.
In addition to the digital twin, the partnership also will focus on engine design and advanced manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, which GE has been using to produce parts for jet engines, gas turbines, medical scanners and other machines. “This level of partnership and sharing of know-how is absolutely unprecedented,” says Slapak, who serves as the ATP manager for GE Aviation in Prague.
GE benefits, too, Slapak says. GE has hired 285 new employees since the launch of the ATP program in early 2016 and plans to hire 80 more this year. “We need to develop the talent and ecosystem, and this partnership is a great way to do it.”
CVUT is a great place to find talent. Founded in 1707 in an apartment below Prague Castle, the school is Europe’s oldest technical school not affiliated with the military. Over the centuries, graduates like Jan Zvonicek and Jan Perner helped electrify the country and built its first railroads. “It produced a lot of the intelligentsia that helped industrialize the country and sparked the national enlightenment when we were still part of Austria-Hungary,” Valasek says. The curriculum is also notoriously demanding. Reportedly only half of the first eight students who enrolled in 1707 obtained a degree. The attrition rate at the engineering school has remained pretty much the same, Valasek says.
GE engineer Pavel Rensa is one of the two GE engineers already working at CVUT. He is helping students reengineer the twin-engine King Air flying test bed so that it can accommodate different engines. “GE wants to open its turboprop headquarters in Prague,” he says. “We need experts to do that, and the university can get them ready.”
CVUT opened its new test cell earlier this year. Below is a timelapse video capturing its construction.