GE and the Czech government announced plans to build a new factory outside of the city of Prague focused on the development and production of the world’s first turboprop engine with 3D printed components. The plant, which will double as GE Aviation’s first aircraft engine headquarters outside the United States, will employ 500 people. It is scheduled to open in 2022.
Engineering marvels such as the gothic Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River below the Prague Castle or the ornate astronomical clock in the Old Town Square have been drawing visitors to the Czech capital for centuries. Now the city is also set to define our manufacturing future.
GE is spending $400 million to develop the engine, which the company calls Advanced Turboprop — or ATP. It will first power the Cessna Denali, Textron Aviation’s next-generation business aircraft. 3D printing allowed designers to consolidate 845 parts into just 11 components. Although the engine still has hundreds of parts in it, the reduction in complexity will help speed up production, reduce fuel burn by up to 20 percent, achieve 10 percent more power and lower the engine’s weight. The engine will be powerful and efficient enough to reach Chicago from Los Angeles or Miami from New York. “The physics is simple,” says Milan Slapak, a turboprop program manager at GE Aviation in Prague. “The more metal you have in the air, the more money you need to spend on the material itself and on the fuel to keep it flying. Also, an engine with fewer components reduces the number of parts you need to design, certify, inspect and make or order. 3D-printing really is the game changer and it will totally change the way traditional supply chains operate and simplify them massively.”
GE has been working on the engine for the last three years. The company is already using individual 3D-printed fuel nozzles and other parts in its jet engines and gas turbines. GE also opened additive manufacturing labs in the U.S. focusing on the technology. “It will be a different world 10 years from now from the manufacturing perspective,” Slapak says, “and we definitively want to be behind the driving wheel. Additive will enable us to make parts with complex shapes that are currently either impossible to achieve using conventional technologies or are simply too expensive to make.”
GE got into the turboprop business in 2008, when it acquired the storied small Czech engine company Walter Aircraft Engines. At the time, the American company hadn’t developed a new turboprop in decades. Companies such as Pratt & Whitney Canada dominated the market, while GE focused mainly on making engines for business, commercial and military jets, and helicopters.
Walter and GE turboprop engines, which have flown for nearly 20 million hours and powered 30 types of aircraft that serve the world’s most remote airports including Lukla at the foot of Mount Everest, the most dangerous airport in the world.
Although the ATP is a “clean sheet” design, GE engineers utilized proven jet engine technologies that have logged more than 1 billion flight hours. GE calls this cross-pollination of know-how the “GE store.”