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Talkin’ ‘Bout Power Generation: How an English Aviation Engineer’s Lofty Perspective Helped GE’s Turbine Business Take Off

John Lammas sees his handiwork all over the place. At the airport, he can gaze out at a taxiing plane and think, “I worked on that fan blade.” Passing by a power-generation plant, he can say to himself, “I worked on the turbines inside.”

The English engineer’s diverse and impressive 30-year career at GE, where he’s worked on jet engines, gas turbines and in the oil and gas business, is no accident. GE routinely shifts talent like Lammas around the company. The idea is to foster innovation by sharing ideas and pooling expertise from different fields, a knowledge crossover called the “GE Store.” Using compressor technology from jet engines in gas turbines is one example, but the concept ranges from CT scanners being used in oil pipelines to ultrasounds working as sensors in factories.

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Top: GE Store cross-business synergy illustrated with turbine blades. Above: Lammas (at left) stands in front of the 9F.03 gas turbine. Image credit: GE Power & Water. 

When he joined the GE Aviation team in Cincinnati, Lammas went to work engineering the variable stator vane (VSV) system – a piece of technology invented in the 1950s by GE to make engines go twice the speed of sound. Lammas was working on a later version for the CFM56, the world’s best-selling aircraft engine powering the Boeing 737 fleet and many other planes.

Assembling the VSV system’s actuating rings involved intricate engineering. Vanes had variable positions based on the engine’s speed and workers adjusted each link, locking parts in sequence. The finicky work slowed production.

Lammas brought an outsider’s perspective. “I looked at it and wondered why were they doing this? I asked if we could simplify and standardize the process,” he recalls. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”

But tests found that using a machine to preset vanes actually produced better results and cut assembly costs. For Lammas the lessons were clear: fresh perspectives facilitate innovation and testing the status quo was worthwhile.

Lammas could stay close to his vanes because GE empowered engineers to guide projects through their complete lifecycles. “GE gave you a great opportunity to see every element of what you designed and how it operated in machines,” Lammas says. “You were left to your own devices to take on as much responsibility as you wanted.”

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The GE90, the world’s largest turbofan engine, thanks in part to the work of John Lammas. Image credit: General Electric. 

For the next 22 years, Lammas worked at the center of some of GE Aviation’s signature projects. He helped create the world’s largest turbofan engine, the GE90, which powers the Boeing 777 and led to the GEnx engine for the Dreamliner (he worked on that one too). Then, in 2007, after nearly 30 years of engineering jet engines, Lammas was asked again by GE to deploy his outsider’s perspective, this time at GE Power & Water.

Vexed by stubborn problems with power generation compressors, the company wanted outside expertise, Lammas recalls. So he made the move to become the Chief Engineer for the business and worked on fixing some legacy F-Class challenges and engineering a new gas turbine, the 7F.05, designed for utility-scale power generation. Like jet engines, they use powerful turbines, compressors and even VSVs, Lammas’ first work assignment. They’re just much larger.

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An employee inspects the compressor section of a GE 7F.05 turbine. Image credit: GE Reports

“There was some nervousness about designing a new compressor for the 7F.05 machine,” he says. “Having someone with an aviation background gave the business the confidence to go ahead.”

The undertaking was a success. Lammas and his team engineered the 7F.05 to use less fuel and produce fewer emissions than earlier gas turbines.

Since then, Lammas has spent time at yet another GE business: Oil and Gas. The unit had grown through mergers and acquisitions and Lammas was sent in to impart GE’s engineering culture. More recently, he returned to Power Generation to help develop GE’s HA turbines, the world’s largest and most efficient of their ilk.

Lammas, made a GE Officer in 2010 as an Engineering Vice President, still loves his craft. He says he still sometimes wakes at night puzzling over issues seen during testing or new technologies for GE’s next generation of heavy gas turbines.

He’s also excited about a new advanced manufacturing plant GE’s building in Greenville, S.C. It will be equipped with 3D printers, among other machines, and will allow his team to develop prototypes faster than before.

“Making things is cool again,” he says.

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