Pratt and Whitney has completely changed the way it builds its engines. The company unveiled a revamped production line at its Middletown plant, which it says will help it keep up with a huge increase in demand.
The engines under construction were the only things that used to stay still at Pratt’s sprawling Middletown complex. “We used to walk on the assembly floor a lot, just delivering parts, trying to get some tooling,” said Jessica Duke, an assembly technician at the plant. Now, she said, it’s completely different. “The transition allowed us to work together with the same department with the same engine.”
What Pratt has done is to take a leaf out of a very old playbook -- that of Henry Ford, who invented the moving assembly line. Instead of technicians buzzing around a stationary engine, now the workers stay still and the engine moves down the assembly line, and it can be raised, lowered and rotated as the technicians need.
Ted Sluice is operations manager at Middletown. He said there’s a reason this has never been done before in jet engine production. "It’s not like an automobile - it’s a very specialized machine," he said. "And unless you have very, very high volume, the investments required to have a line like this just don’t make sense."
And it’s that volume equation that’s about to change for Pratt. The company expects its output to more than double over the next five years, as demand from commercial airlines soars, and military work also ramps up. Pratt has a backlog of more than 6,200 orders for its PurePower Geared Turbofan engine. Middletown will also be one of the facilities that produces the F135 engine for the military's next generation jet, the F35 joint strike fighter.
The company has declined to reveal exactly how much it spent to build this state of the art facility, but the fact it’s here in Connecticut caused the CEO of United Technologies, Greg Hayes to reflect back to an offhand remark he made some years ago that has been hard to live down. “I was at an investor conference in New York and I said, anyplace but Connecticut is low cost," he told the crowd at the ribbon cutting for the new facility, "and I think I took my lumps in the press for about six years for that statement. What’s nice to say as I stand up here today - it’s nice to be proven wrong.”
The state of Connecticut, which has allowed Pratt’s parent UTC to exercise more than $400 million in tax credits to make investments like this, will hope that remains wrong.