Launching pad for growth and innovation
GE Aviation continues to find a perfect partner in the South
By Trisha Ostrowski
Over the past six years, GE Aviation has invested approximately a half billion dollars in development and expansion of operations in a variety of locations throughout the South. As a leader in the aerospace industry, GE clearly recognizes the value of the workforce, infrastructure and economic advantages of these communities.
Developer of the first jet engine in the United States in 1942, GE has been at the leading edge of the aerospace revolution for more than 70 years. In order to continue its innovative work, the company invests $1 billion annually in research and development on jet propulsion engines. Recently, company leaders have seen enormous potential in taking the results of the R&D work to production via a series of new operations located throughout the Southeast. Five major facilities announcements, to be exact, over the past decade, have changed the face of the industry and significantly impacted local economies.
A growing network
In 2006, GE announced plans to build a 300,000-square-foot facility in Batesville, Miss., to produce two parts for GE's GEnx jet engine -- fan platforms and the fan case assembly. The facility, at full capacity, will employ 100 people. GE Aviation President and CEO David Joyce called it a "textbook example of how state government -- linked with its universities -- can team with private industry to create sophisticated manufacturing technologies and products with global impact."
The company followed, in 2008, with the announcement that it was investing $75 million in an advanced manufacturing plant in Auburn, Ala. The 300,000-square-foot plant produces precision, super-alloy machined parts for GE jet engines.
GE entered into a partnership with the State of Alabama to develop pre-employment training programs. In order to create a consistent pipeline of trained and educated staff, GE has worked with Auburn University and Tuskegee University to create internship and co-op opportunities for students. The result has been so successful that it has become something of a model for successive facilities launches by the company throughout the South.
New technologies, greater innovation
Continuing its rich tradition of product innovation, GE is using new technologies in its Greenville, S.C., facility. The result has been a reduction in production time for turbine blades by 50 percent, significantly boosting production capacity. This Greenville facility, a $30 million 150,000-square-foot space, is the natural next step in the company's long-standing investment in the area.
The Greenville Airfoils facility, opened in 2010, represents a $30 million investment. As a result of the increased production capacity, company VP Scott Ernest said the Greenville facility would "ramp up production and will produce 350,000 high pressure turbine blades this year."
In 2013, the company added again to its growing impact on the state of Mississippi by announcing it was developing a $56 million facility in Ellisville. It is clearly an outgrowth of what has been a substantial win for GE. "GE Aviation's growing partnership with the state of Mississippi is creating long-term economic growth," said Joyce at the facility announcement. "We couldn't be happier with our Batesville operation, and we look forward to the growth of our new Ellisville operation."
It helped, too, that the Howard Technology Park was a certified "Project Ready" site.
"Plus, Jones County Junior College offered specialized, customized training for potential GE Aviation employees," said Mitch Stennett, President of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County. "That, coupled with the proximity to the University of Southern Mississippi's Polymer Science Department, seemed to tie the location factors together."
In Ellisville, they are using "advanced technology in manufacturing processes and equipment" to produce a composite material known as "polymer matrix composites," which are used in two new engine programs: the LEAP jet engine and GE's new Passport jet engine. Both GE Aviation (GEA) and the State of Mississippi directly attribute the decision to locate in Ellisville as a natural result of the friendship forged five years earlier when GE located in Batesville.
The partnership between community and company has been mutually beneficial. "A local coalition was formed between GEA, the local WIN Job Center (part of the Mississippi Employment Security Commission), Jones County Junior College and the Mississippi Development Authority to help find potential employees that would fit their needs," said Stennett. "Local elected officials have also assisted with fast-track permitting and have continued to be proactive in meeting any needs GEA has had since the opening."
Sandy Holifield, Economic Development Director for Jones County, added, "GE Aviation has been very involved in our community, participating in events like the Jones County Heart Walk, area school events and hosting numerous plant tours for educators and local industry leaders."
This growing network of successful collaborations in multiple Southern locations led, inevitably, to the company continuing to expand operations throughout the region.
An important industry
In 2013 GE Aviation broke ground on a $125 million new site in Asheville, N.C., which will employ 340 people. The new advanced composites factory will be the first in the world to mass produce engine components made of advanced ceramic matrix composite materials. Governor Pat McCrory acknowledged the significance of the site announcement by saying, "The aviation sector is an important industry for our state, and GE excels in it. We're proud that these advanced engine components will be manufactured right here in North Carolina."
Then, in July of 2014, the company followed with another -- announcing a $50 million additional investment in Auburn, Ala.
This investment brings high volume additive manufacturing to the Auburn facility, and will employ an additional 300 people. It is a state-of-the-art upgrade that will allow GE to mass-produce additive components for the jet propulsion industry. The company will invest $50 million in the existing 300,000-square-foot facility in preparation for this new work, making the total more than $125 million they've invested there since 2011.
"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," said Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. "This is tomorrow's technology, and we are proud to say it will be performed right here in Alabama."
The decision to locate in Auburn undoubtedly demonstrates the high level of trust GE has in the quality of the area's workforce. Production begins early in 2015.
The obvious question is "Why has GE Aviation, a company boasting $20 billion in revenue annually, repeatedly invested millions in new and expanded facilities in the South?" Obviously, the company sees immense value in these locations -- both in terms of workforce quality and financial incentives, infrastructure and potential for growth. In each case, GE Aviation has looked to the South as a perfect launching pad for innovation, growth, expansion and investment as it continues to strive to stay at the front of the aerospace industry.