Pratt and Whitney says 2014 was a transformational year for the company, and it’s ready to put development problems behind it, as its new family of engines goes into service this year.
After a couple of decades of declining engine sales, Pratt and Whitney has been promising that its technological advances, with the fuel-efficient geared turbofan engine will be a game changer. “Pratt has been in a very significant reinvestment phase for the last several years, which will lead us to a period where we’ll have some sustained business growth,” president of the company Paul Adams told reporters at Pratt's annual media day.
And a backlog of orders for more than 6,000 of the engines already on Pratt’s books might seem to prove Adams’ point. He says its long-awaited entry into service will happen first with Airbus in the last quarter of this year; a milestone for the company, and he hopes for the airline industry itself.
Danny DiPerna has a key role in making all of this happen - he’s in charge of Engineering and Operations for the company. He said the impending ramp up in volume means a step change for the thousands of companies that supply parts to Pratt. “The whole supply chain in aerospace has been experiencing a transformation in quality," he told WNPR. "We need perfect quality. It’s easy to say, and it’s another effort to actually go and do it.”
In anticipation, Pratt has made several big innovations in manufacturing, including a new assembly line at its Middletown facility, and bringing 3D printing into is production process. But the development phase of its new technologies has brought its own problems - including high profile delays caused by engine fires in testing, both in the geared turbofan, and in the engine for the military’s new fighter jet, the F35. “Unfortunately we had a couple of kicks at the can at this last year, one in the commercial engine, and one in the F135. So first of all, I would tell you it’s very stressful,” said DiPerna.
But DiPerna said Pratt’s engineering process swung into action in the wake of those failures. "The fundamentals of engineering principle is immediately find root cause," he said. "And it’s amazing how we can take a particular failure, and bring home the evidence, analyze it and determine root cause." He’s confident the subsequent fix has retained industry confidence in the program.
Another key change that Pratt is in the midst of implementing is in the sales and services it provides after an engine is sold — what’s known as the aftermarket. Matthew Bromberg, who runs aftermarket for the company, says it’s actually any airline’s biggest engine investment.
“The amount of money they spend on the engine, they may spend five or six times as much over the course of a lifetime," Bromberg said. "From a Pratt and Whitney point of view, our return on our investment is based on managing that aftermarket for the 20 to 30 years that the customers flies the engine. It’s critical.”
Historically many airlines managed their own maintenance, calling in the manufacturer only for spare parts or occasional support. Now many airlines are starting to depend entirely on the engine maker for a holistic service - from major overhaul down to the flight-day maintenance at the airport gate. Bromberg says it’s a bigger responsibility, but it could also drive down costs. “Now the risk is on our side. We need to build teams capable of managing that complexity. But I think there’s an opportunity for us to improve value, because we’re going to be optimizing the maintenance around a fleet of engines, not one customer’s engines. We can do more from a central team than any one airline can do.”
But if the company is poised to take off, the same cannot be said of its workforce in Connecticut. Paul Adams was cautious.
"I really don’t want to make any employment predictions for us, short term or long term," Adams said. "We like the skill set we have here in Connecticut - it’s our headquarters, it’s where we do the majority of our engineering. But we will always be looking at, do we have the right skills in the right location, in the right quantity, in our worldwide footprint."
Adams said the groundbreaking this summer for its new East Hartford headquarters should at least ensure that its engineering expertise remains anchored in the Nutmeg State.