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Where Turbines Are Born: An Inside Look at GE’s Big Iron Maternity Ward

Tomas Kellner
October 04, 2017
There are places in the world that make us feel small and force us to marvel at the skills and ambitions of their architects and engineers. They include cathedrals in Europe, NASA's Cape Canaveral rocket launch pad or the Panama Canal. GE’s gas turbine plant in Greenville, South Carolina, may not be on everyone’s list. But it comes close.
The plant’s several manufacturing halls — equivalent in size to nearly 21 football fields – strike most first-time visitors as the playrooms of a giant toddler. Massive yellow gantry cranes lift multi-ton rotors and stators gleaming like alien silver sunflowers. They flip them around their axis, and stack them on shafts the diameter and length of tree trunks.

ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140429_0351-22_extra_large This image shows a series of compressor rotors on the left and three turbine rotors on the right.

The place smells of high-grade steel and pulses with an industrial symphony of electrical motors cutting in and out. Computer-guided milling machines larger than delivery trucks use jagged cutting heads drenched in white cooling liquid to shape huge turbine wheels.

The plant, which opened in 1968, even has its own railroad spur and also America’s largest train turntable — measured by weight capacity — to move the finished turbines into a unique test stand designed to push turbines to the limit. It can withstand exhaust heated to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit jetting out of them at 1,100 mph – 10 times faster than the winds of a Category 3 hurricane. There site also has a natural gas plant that supplies the test stand with fuel and allows the turbines to run a full load.

The place also has a 70,000-square-foot research center called Advanced Manufacturing Works. It's replete with 3D printers and powerful lasers. Engineers use them to develop and test parts for next-generation machines like the air-cooled Harriet 9HA turbine — the world’s largest and most efficient gas turbine. Although the facility is strictly off-limits to outsiders, GE Reports recently got a tour. Take a look.

gtr A gas turbine on the half-shell with unit rotor and compressor in the front and a turbine  in the back.

GTS Two gas turbine shafts suspended in the air with stacked compressor and turbine rotors.

greenville7_extra_large Building gas turbines involves a touch of rocket science, and even their production resembles a space factory. Here three GE gas turbines are being readied for shipping.

greenville24_extra_large Finished gas turbines are getting ready for shipping.

greenville5_extra_large This image shows the forward bearing housing, the compressor inlet and the compressor front block.

greenville3_extra_large The compressor inlet casing.

43167588 A worker is inspecting the top shell of a gas turbine.

greenville10_extra_large A series of compressor blades. They are highly polished and their blue color is a light reflection.

ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140429_0351-97-edit_extra_large The inside of the compressor with stationary compressor vanes.

ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140429_0351-79_extra_large A gas turbine casing.


ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140430_0352-66_extra_large These "dovetail joints" hold blades in place.

ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140430_0352-115-edit_extra_large A gas turbine stator.

ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140430_0352-19_extra_large Compressor blades.

ge_greenville-sc_gas-turbines_20140430_0352-61_extra_large A detail of cooling holes in turbine blades.

These fuel lines feed one of the test turbine combustors at the testing facility.

the_machine_extra_large A torque converter and gearbox for the auxiliary drive motor at Test Stand 7, which can test turbines at full load.


vents_extra_large Air flow meters in the front inlet at Test Stand 7. The combined array of the flow meters can measure up to 1,800 pounds of air per second. The holes are the size of wine barrels, and they must withstand multiples of hurricane-force winds.



turbine_2_extra_large GE's latest 9HA air-cooled turbine is powering through testing. Engineers are using thousands of sensors to gather data and feed it to industrial software for analysis.