GE Aviation investing $50 million in Auburn plant expansion

Take an existing aerospace plant, add a lucrative contract to make a high-tech product, mix in an investment of $50 million, and what do you get?

The potential to ramp up hiring on the way to total employment of 300 workers within five or so years at GE Aviation’s year-old facility in Auburn, Ala.

The company, along with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, unveiled the expansion Tuesday of GE Aviation’s 300,000-square-foot plant in Auburn while attending the Farnborough Airshow in Hampshire, England.

GE Aviation said it has landed a contract to manufacture a fuel nozzle for the LEAP jet engine now in development by CFM International using what is called “additive technology.”

The process, the company said, involves using fine metal powder and laser (electron) beams to “grow” the parts, eliminating the waste that typically comes from forging or cutting parts from pieces of metal. The additive process also is called “3D printing.”

The LEAP engine is expected to power three types of large aircraft — Airbus and Boeing models included — starting in 2016. Each engine requires nearly 20 fuel nozzles, the company said, with CFM already expecting to sell more than 6,000 of the engines.

The Auburn plant, GE Aviation said, is projected to make more than 40,000 of the fuel nozzles by the year 2020, while also continuing to manufacture super-alloy parts for jet engines. It has been doing that since opening in April 2013 with an investment of $75 million in the facility since 2011.

The fuel nozzle line will bring the total investment in Auburn to $125 million. The company said more than 70 people are on the payroll there currently.

“GE Aviation’s decision to launch a 3-D printing initiative at its Auburn plant speaks volumes about the ability of an Alabama workforce to carry out cutting-edge manufacturing,” Bentley said in a statement. “This is tomorrow’s technology, and we are proud to say it will be performed right here in Alabama.”

GE Aviation said it will begin installing equipment in the Auburn facility by the end of this year, with production of the jet fuel nozzles in 2015. It will start with 10 printing machines, with capacity to add at least 40 more before maxing out production.

“We spent years proving out this technology for a critical component in the heart of the engine, the combustion chamber,” Greg Morris, GE Aviation’s general manager over Additive Technologies, said in a statement. “Now we are well positioned to apply this technology to other components in the same harsh environment which could prove to be game changing for future engine programs and designs.”

GE Aviation said it will continue to rely on east Alabama education institutions to develop its workforce as the expansion proceeds. That includes Auburn University, Tuskegee University and Southern Union State Community College.

The company also said its Additive Technology Center in Cincinnati expects to expand dramatically over the next year, testing products that may one day fill the Auburn production pipeline.

Both of Alabama’s U.S. Senate leaders weighed in on GE’s Auburn expansion, with Richard Shelby, expressing delight at the creation of jobs connected to “advanced technology” manufacturing.

Jeff Sessions said the project “keeps Alabama at the forefront of the aviation industry,” while also reflecting well on the state’s “world class workforce.”

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