During my recent visit to Cincinnati, I met with key personnel from the Intelligent Maintenance System Center (IMS) at the University of Cincinnati: Dr. Hossein Davari - IMS Center Post-Doctoral Fellow, Patrick Brown - IMS Center Program Director, Chao Jin - IMS Center Graduate Researcher, and Michael Lyons - IMS Center Program Coordinator

Dr. Davari told me that the "IMS Center is a leading NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) that consists of the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan and Missouri University of Science & Technology."

He said, "The Center has over 12 years of experience in developing and delivering Prognostics and Health Management (PHM) solutions for a wide-range of applications. The IMS Center’s mission is to enable products and systems to achieve and sustain near-zero breakdown performance, and transform maintenance data to useful information for improved productivity and asset life-cycle utilization. Since its inception in 2001, the Center has conducted over 100 successful industry and NSF supported projects, and has attracted over 80 members from all across the globe. The IMS Center was recently identified as the most economically impactful I/UCRC in NSF’s recent study titled, “Measuring the Economic Impacts of the NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers Program: A Feasibility Study.” According to this study, the Center delivered its members $846.7 million in combined benefits over the last 10 years."

Dr. Davari explained the work of their Masters in Science and Ph.D. students, "Graduate students in the IMS Center focus on developing innovative technologies and tools for health assessment, degradation monitoring and prognostics of machinery. Graduate students work both towards conducting fundamental research along with developing specific tools to address the needs of the industry. Graduate students get the opportunity to work closely with industry members ranging from manufacturing to energy and transportation applications. With a unique set of skills and experience in the field of Prognostics and Health Management (PHM), they continue to develop innovative tools and technologies and bring value to both industry and academia. The IMS Center researchers have also won the PHM Society Data Challenge five times since 2008. It is an annual competition organized by the PHM society and is open to researchers in academia and industry worldwide."

Dr. Davari stated, "In 2012, National Instruments awarded the Prognostics Innovation Award to IMS Center for the development of Watchdog Agent Prognostics toolkit. Watchdog Agent consists of a set of algorithms and tools developed for degradation assessment and failure prediction of machinery and processes. The toolbox has been implemented in various industrial applications and has been commercialized by National Instruments as an additional toolbox for the LabVIEW software package.”

I told him I could see how important preventing failure is healthcare because a failure could result in serious harm to a patient and even be fatal. When I asked him to explain what a "Digital Twin is, he said, "It is a digital representation of the physical system, generated by data-driven and physics-based models. IMS Center has developed a Cyber-physical Interface, through which the data is being collected from a machine continuously. This data is then processed and converted to machine health information using tools in Watchdog Agent toolbox. This health information is used to make informed decisions for optimum maintenance and near-zero breakdowns. It also continuously seeks for possible variations in the machine performance and provides insight into the current performance of the machine compared to its past performance, or its peers doing the same job. Digital twin basically connects the physical world to cyber world for improved visibility and transparency in machine operation." He later forwarded me a link to a video describing IMS technologies.

Advanced Ceramics at GE Aviation

Next I visited the Ceramic Matrix Composite Laboratory at GE Aviation and met with Jon Blank, Composite Matrix & Advanced Composite section leader, and Perry Bradley, communications leader, GE Aviation, followed by a tour of the lab.

From the material I was provided in advance, I learned that advancing the use of ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) has challenged industry for decades. In my day job as a manufacturers' sales rep for fabrication companies, I had represented a company doing ceramic injection molding and a company making pre-preg layup composite parts for airline interiors in the 1990s. I was aware of the ultra-lightweight and super-heat-resistant properties of CMCs and knew that companies were investing millions to try to win the race to mass-produce this engineered material.

We first toured the Leaning Center where all the engine models GE has produced were on display. It was inspiring to me to see the advancements in technology incorporated into these successive generations of engines. Since I have previously represented companies that produced forgings and investment castings, I understood how advances in metals technology, particularly the use of Titanium, had reduced weight and improved the efficiency of engines. Since Solar Turbines in San Diego was one of my customers, I was aware of their work in the development of using ceramic molded parts in small turbine engines. However, when I saw the complexity of shape and size of the CMC turbine blades that GE Aviation is now making, it was astonishing.

Blank told me that "For more than 20 years, GE scientists in the U.S. and worldwide have worked to develop CMCs as a differentiating technology in large gas turbines for power generation, and in jet engines for commercial and military jet planes. Now their big bet is paying off as GE leads the charge to industrialize CMCs for large engine applications. GE leads the world in introducing CMCs into the hot section of jet engines and gas turbines and is creating the vertically-integrated supply chain necessary to mass produce CMC components."

He explained why CMCs are critical to advancing the jet propulsion and power generation industries. "Components made of CMCs allow gas turbines and jet engines to run hotter, and thus more efficiently. Ultra-lightweight CMCs also reduce weight throughout the engine, leading to higher fuel efficiency. CMCs in gas turbines and jet engines contribute to lower emissions and improved environmental performance. They create a significant economic advantage. CMCs are made of silicon carbide ceramic fibers and ceramic resin, manufactured through a highly sophisticated process, and further enhanced with proprietary coatings. They are one-third the density of metal alloys and one-third the weight."

He continued, "CMCs are more durable and heat resistant than metal alloys, allowing the diversion of less cooling air into the engine’s hot section, and thereby improving overall engine efficiency. By using the cooling air instead in the engine flow path, the engine can run more efficiently at higher thrust. The average rate of technology progress for turbine engine material temperature capability increased 50 degrees per decade. With the use of CMCs, GE will now increase the temperature by 150 degrees in this decade, 3x the traditional rate. The benefits of CMCs are a 10% thrust increase and increased temperature using 2400F CMCs."

He said, "In 2009, GE Aviation ran the first CMCs in the hot section of the F136 military engine. The CMCs were structural shrouds that direct air in the high-pressure turbine section, the hottest area of the engine. The results encouraged us to pursue CMC components with its next-generation commercial jet engines. GE worked to expand its overall CMC production capability. In 2012, Nippon Carbon (NCK) of Japan, a producer of composite fibers, formed a joint venture with GE (25% ownership) and Snecma (25%) called NGS Advanced Fibers, which produces fibers for CMC components such as the CMC shrouds. The next year later, GE Aviation expanded CMC “lean lab” operations in Delaware to develop new CMC components and the plant in Asheville, N.C., was selected as factory to mass produce CMC components. Their lab was established in 2014, and in 2015, the Huntsville, Ala. factory was selected to produce CMC building-block materials [fiber and tape.]"

As we toured the lab and watched a couple of parts being made, he said "We have now established a fully-integrated CMC supply chain in the U.S. involving CMC raw material production in Huntsville, research and low-volume production here in Cincinnati, the CMC Lean Lab in Delaware, and CMC mass production in Asheville."

Bradley said, “The LEAP engine for narrow-body aircraft will enter airline service in 2016 with CMC shrouds [18 shrouds per engine] in the high-pressure turbine section. This is being developed by CFM International, which is a 50/50 joint company of GE and Snecma of France. By the end of the decade, GE will introduce the GE9X engine for the new Boeing 777X under development. This engine will also feature CMC components in both the combustor [inner and outer liner] and high-pressure turbine sections [stage 1 and 2 nozzles, and stage 1 shrouds].”

He also said, "GE Aviation continues to run an advanced military engine through the U.S. government-sponsored ADVENT program with CMCs in the combustor and turbine sections – demonstrating the highest core temperatures in jet propulsion history. In 2014, GE Aviation successfully ran CMC turbine blades – a high-speed rotating part – in a F414 military demonstrator. This is a huge breakthrough for GE in pursuing the use of CMC in rotating parts because up to now, CMCs have been limited to static parts in an engine."

Blank concluded, "This is all part of GE Aviation’s continuing efforts to further mature CMC technology for future commercial and military engines. The demand for CMCs is expected to grow tenfold over the next decade."

Part two of this article will cover the companies I visited on day two of my visit to Cincinnati.