Do a google search on Pratt & Whitney and you’re sure to find a number of less than glowing stories about the company’s PurePower geared turbofan (GTF) engines. It’s the curse of the Internet age that when a company has high-profile problems, they can take on a life of their own.
Pratt & Whitney spent $10 billion developing the GTF engine, aiming to knock GE off its perch as the premier provider of engines for the lucrative single-aisle commercial jet market. The engine has had problems with several components, including a combustor and an internal seal. The problems caused airlines to either cancel or delay orders for Airbus planes using the engines. On April 27, Airbus’ finance chief Harald Wilhelm castigated the performance of the engines and said they were largely responsible for a drop in Airbus’ first quarter profits.
But at a media day held in Florida May 31, Pratt & Whitney President Bob Leduc and his leadership team sought to refocus attention on what they see as “a lot bigger story” - a powerful lineup of products backed by significant investments in manufacturing processes and efforts to forge a culture willing, as the company’s new motto states, to “Go Beyond.”
Pratt & Whitney has been building airplane engines in the United States since 1925. Today, the company has sales of $14 billion annually and employs 33,500.
Approximately half of Pratt’s revenue comes from the sale of commercial engines. The other half is split evenly between military engines and Pratt & Whitney Canada, which produces engines for regional aircraft, helicopters and industrial applications.
Leduc acknowledged the attention paid to the GTF engine’s stumble from the gate, but said it had overshadowed a bigger story – that the company had an impressive military portfolio and a small engine business unmatched by either GE or Rolls-Royce.
Leduc recalled that by the early 2000s, GE had taken significant military engine business and Pratt leaders began to think “there was no way for us to come back in the military engine business.” But he noted, “Then we won the joint strike fighter and the world changed.”
Not only is PW exclusively providing engines for the F-35 fighter but the company has won contracts for the KC-46A tanker and the B-21 bomber.
Ramp-up is a fixture in Pratt presentations as the company has prepared for a major upswing in production. Pratt has delivered 325 F135 engines for the joint strike fighter but production continues to increase, from 42 engines in 2015 to 80 this year to an expected 170 in 2020. On the commercial side, PW has 8,000 orders for its GTF engine in backlog, with 1,500 orders coming in the past year. Company officials say fixes have been introduced for the GTF issues and more changes will be introduced to new engines to put the technical snafus behind them. Pratt leaders remain convinced that the GTF engines offer superior performance.
“I don't think there is any debate about this, if you go to any of our customers, any of our airframe customers, they will tell you that geared architecture is the architecture of choice,” Leduc asserted.
In a presentation in May, Greg Hayes, chairman and CEO of United Technologies, Pratt & Whitney’s parent company, noted that Pratt is expected to produce more than 10% compound growth between 2017 and 2020. Hayes said Pratt’s growing installed base of engines and the aftermarket business they represent means the company is positioned for a dozen years of growth. Hayes said the company has invested for that growth, pouring money into technology and its production capabilities.
The company has retooled its manufacturing assembly plants in East Middletown, Conn. and West Palm Beach, Fla., as well as its parts center in North Berwick, Maine and other facilities. The assembly plants use an overhead carriage system that moves the engines through each stage of the manufacturing process as employees add components and then to testing.
Leduc noted to reporters that his management team has also been retooled “because of the challenge ahead of us.” Matthew Bromberg became president of military engines in May 2017. In February, Christopher Calio took over the commercial engines division. John Saabas, a 30+ year veteran of PW with a Ph.D. in aerodynamics, has been president of Pratt &Whitney Canada since 2009.
Pratt showcased for reporters its efforts to digitalize its value chain from suppliers through manufacturing to its aftermarket services for customers. As an example, Leduc pointed to the manufacturing of turbine discs in a $50 million cell at P&WC’s Longueil, Quebec manufacturing facility. He said digitalization has reduced lead time for the complicated parts from four to two weeks, virtually eliminated scrap in the process and reduced manpower by 80%.
“Quality is virtually perfect,” said Leduc. “We do it with less people.”
In fact, one operator, trained for 400 hours, operates the turbine disc cell. A robot moves the part from station to station. If the machining begins to vary from the designated specifications, the operator can reprogram the machine so that the correct dimensional tolerances are being met.
“Historically, he would have loaded the part on the machine, hit the button and let the machine do its thing, really blind to whether or not statistically that this was going to be perfect until it came out of the machine and we measured the dimension,” Leduc said. “Now we do it all real time.”
While operations such as parts machining can be largely automated, Leduc said it was “highly unlikely” that Pratt would move to automate the assembly of jet engines. He said the capital investment was too high and that automation would be reserved for operations involving high volume, safety critical, dimensional tolerance parts.
As Pratt & Whitney prepares for higher production levels, it also has invested in its supply chain to achieve better visibility into where parts are for its engine production. The company has added about 300 supply chain employees, Leduc explained, who visit suppliers and verify that their work in progress and yields will meet Pratt’s needs. The company has two command centers – one in Canada and one in Hartford, Conn., which track parts throughout the supply chain. Real time data on where parts are for each engine, Leduc said, has been “instrumental” in PW’s production ramp-up.
Leduc said in the past, the company had relied on supplier promises, which weren’t always kept. “Two days before the part was due, they would call and say we're going to miss that delivery,” Leduc said. “You can't live that way in a high-volume environment.”
While Pratt & Whitney is forging ahead with digitalization, Leduc said the company won’t realize the full benefits of a digital enterprise until it “can connect the entire value chain end to end digitally.” He said it likely will take Pratt “seven to 10 years to get that completely done.”
The Price of Admission
Even as Pratt introduces its latest generation of engines, the company is working on upgrades for them and conducting development work on new engines.
“Innovation is the price of admission to be in this industry,” said Leduc. For example, Pratt currently uses double wall turbine airfoil technology. For the next generation engine, Leduc said the company will turn to using ceramic matrix composites. “We think that ends up with a product in the next five to 10 years,” he predicted.
Innovation extends to how the company will develop and produce engine parts. Pratt is using additive manufacturing for a bracket for a high-pressure compressor sync ring because it is a very complex shape. Leduc said the company is also using additive manufacturing in its development work.
“Usually when you go with the conventional toolmakers, you're talking about an eight to 12 months lead time,” said Leduc, but added that with 3D printing, “you can probably do it in a month and a half.”
Leduc remains skeptical, however, about additive manufacturing’s current role in mass production. “We see strategic opportunity for additive but we think the ability of lasers to lay metal has to be a lot quicker - we think 10 or 12 times quicker than it is today for us to say we can put it in rate production,” he said.
While technology will be an ongoing focus for PW, Leduc is not neglecting the employees who are propelling the company to “Go Beyond.”
“The culture of a company typically determines how successful the company is going to be or not be,” Leduc stated. He said the company was “laser focused” on developing a culture where employees feel empowered, entrusted and able to make mistakes and learn from them. He points to an early sign of success – attrition rates have fallen from 5% in January 2016 to 2% currently.
"I really think that we are on the precipice of having one of the best corporate cultures in America," Leduc concluded.