June 9, 2014
Reporter's Notebook

Pratt seeks to be commercial engine leader for generations

Photo | HBJ File
Photo | HBJ File
East Hartford’s Pratt & Whitney is investing in research and development so it can come up with another groundbreaking product, like its PurePower series engine, shown above.
Paul Adams, president, Pratt & Whitney

Now that Pratt & Whitney has come roaring back into the commercial airline engine business with its PurePower series, the East Hartford aerospace manufacturer plans to stay on the leading edge of the industry for decades to come, the firm's new president said.

Pratt will develop more fuel-efficient engines that help airlines save money by continuing to invest in research and development so the company always is looking at what the next big move in the industry will be, Pratt President Paul Adams said.

"We have a long-term technology focus," said Adams, who became Pratt president on Jan. 1 replacing David Hess. "We've got a process that looks out into the future."

Because the next generation of aerospace industry technology takes years to develop, the R&D work companies do today doesn't pay dividends for at least 15 years.

That's why Pratt had taken a step back in the commercial engine market before the introduction of the PurePower series. It's R&D for commercial engines had fallen off a generation ago, hurting its ability to compete in the industry.

Then, the company introduced the PurePower series engine, which offers a 15 percent fuel usage reduction and a 75 percent noise reduction from engines currently on the market. Those technological achievements didn't happen overnight and were the result of years of development, Adams said.

As the PurePower has been matched with five new aircraft developed by airframe builders — most notably the Airbus A320neo — the company has sold 5,500 orders and commitments for the engine series. This has led to a ramp-up in manufacturing capacity and a planned $10 billion revenue pipeline to suppliers, including 90 direct suppliers in Connecticut.

"It is a great opportunity to have in front of us," said Jill Albertelli, vice president of Pratt's global supply chain.

To maintain a strong product pipeline for generations to come, Pratt looks at technological development over the near term (0-5 years), medium term (5-10 years), and the future (10-15 years), Adams said.

The next generation in commercial engines will be another significant reduction in fuel consumption, similar to the 15 percent reduction from the PurePower series, Adams said. Fuel costs will continue to be an issue for airlines, so the more savings engines can offer, the better Pratt will be able to sell them.

Pratt still plans to continue its longstanding work in the military engine field as well, Adams said. Its latest F135 engine for the F-35 fighter jet should be at the forefront of the military market for the foreseeable future.

"Long-term, it is going to be the plane of choice to defend Western democracies around the world," Adams said. "We are very confident about it."

Unlike commercial engines, the market for military engines doesn't turn over as quickly, so Pratt should be good with the F135 for several decades, Adams said.

The F-15 fighter jet — the one the F-35 is replacing — first was developed in the 1960s and is still flying. The B-52 bomber was introduced in the 1950s, and its expected retirement isn't coming for at least another 30 years.

"The lead times are longer for military engines because technology is more groundbreaking and complex," Adams said.

While Pratt invests in R&D to remain competitive in the military and commercial engine businesses for generations, the company is updating its production technology now to derive maximum value and quality out of its goods.

The aerospace firm is making a $400 million investment over the next five years at its Middletown and East Hartford facilities to expand capacity and make it easier for production employees to assemble engines.

At Middletown, for example, the production floor currently has work stations where employees stand the engines vertically and can raise and lower the floor in order to access engine parts that need to be worked on.

This method makes it easier for employees to reach products, but also creates unnecessary handling of the engines — making a naturally horizontal product vertical — by adding handles and other materials that are not needed in the final product, said Joseph Sylvestro, vice president of Pratt's manufacturing operations.

Middletown is installing a new system where engines will lay horizontal but can be moved up and down and rotated to help the worker put the product together with minimal discomfort. This not only helps employees but increases the number of engines that can be built at the same time, along with increasing the speed at which they are assembled, Sylvestro said.

"That is important because there is less material handling," Sylvestro said. "It brings the work to the people and the tasks … New technology is more and more productive."

– Brad Kane

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