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GE’s Angelella Gets USAF’s Need for Speed—in Acquisition, as Well as Flight

Sam Angelella was a teenager at DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, N.J., when he first started thinking about the military after a class visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Later, someone suggested that, with his interest in engineering and keen eyesight, the U.S. Air Force Academy might be a better bet.

 “The rest, as they say, is history,” says Angelella, who retired in 2015 as the three-star commander of 5th Air Force and U.S. Forces Japan. Over 34 years on active duty he flew some 3200 hours, 90 percent of that powered by GE engines.

A career flying F-16s and sending young pilots to war in those high-performing jets gave Angelella a deep appreciation for the technology that enables Airmen to do their work every day, but also the challenges involved with keeping those airplanes flying day after day. It’s not just the mechanical work involved, but the complexities of depending on supply lines, the challenges with operating different versions of the same aircraft, and the downstream effects of acquisition decisions made years or decades before.

When Angelella took command of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB, S.C., just as it was preparing to deploy for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, those challenges suddenly loomed larger than ever.

“I had four squadrons of F-16 Block 50s, and each squadron had a different version,” he recalls. “You know, being responsible for sending all those young folks out, it was really driven home to me how much you need the operators’ input to decide how to prioritize those upgrades.

“In a way, that’s what I do here for GE,” he explains. “I provide that operator’s sensibility. I can ask, ‘How can we go faster?’”

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Engines of Innovation

The Defense Department and the Air Force are asking the same questions. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord calls it “acquisition at the speed of relevance.” Air Force acquisition chief Dr. Will Roper talks about unlocking and accelerating the pace of innovation.

“Going faster is not just a tagline for us,” Roper said at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium. “It’s a dead serious business about keeping the Air Force competitive and dominant.”

Moving faster is all about equipping Airmen to fight and win. It all “starts with our warfighters,” Roper says. “Everything is about their mission.”

Under Roper’s acquisition leadership, the Air Force has cut a collective century from dozens of programs’ acquisition timelines. GE and Angelella are after parallel results, looking for ways to slash weeks, months, and years from the time it takes to issue a contract, determine fair pricing, deliver new parts, and more. Increase efficiency, Angelella says, and the Air Force will save more than time: It will save money, too. Money that can pay for other capabilities Airman need to fight and win, now and in the future.

One example: Using additive manufacturing technology, better known as 3D printing, to cut the cost and time needed to make certain complex parts. GE isn’t just doing this to make door handles or cupholders, though: It’s using additive tech to make complex engine components faster and better than before. It’s not easy.

“Making FAA-approved jet engine parts, there’s a real science to that,” Angelella says. “And we’ve been doing that successfully. A lot of our commercial engines are flying today with additive manufactured components.”

Indeed, GE’s Catalyst Turboprop engine was designed to be built largely with additive manufacturing technology. GE engineers reduced the number of distinct components from 855 to just 12, dramatically simplifying assembly, cutting weight by 100 pounds, and reducing both fuel consumption and maintenance. “You reduce the number of parts, reduce the weight and reduce the manufacturing hours needed to put it all together,” Angelella says. “It’s amazing.”

Those bonuses are all things the military can benefit from, as well. For example, GE employed additive manufacturing to win the Army’s Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) competition. The winning engine, the T901 will replace the 1970s-era T700 engine on the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters.

Indeed, GE is so enamored of additive manufacturing it has an entire new business unit just to exploit the possibilities. GE Additive provides both additive manufacturing systems and support services for companies trying to apply this new technology to their products.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘We’re going to go buy one of these machines and print our own replacement parts,’” Angelella says. “It’s more complicated than that. There’s a long learning curve to figure out how you actually design and make things using this technology and GE has that expertise.”

GE is also actively working on sharing its know-how with the Air Force at Tinker AFB.

“We want to support the warfighter,” Angelella says. “If that’s a fix-forward capability, all right. If it’s a deployable capability, we can help with that, too. There’s a right way to do that out in the field. And there’s a right way to do it back in the depots for long range sustainment.”

Engineering for Digital and Data

Where digital engineering meets additive manufacturing is a frontier GE is already exploring. Its T901 engine is more powerful, more reliable, and less costly to operate largely because of those breakthrough technologies.

“You can design things today that you couldn’t manufacture using conventional methods,” Angelella says. And you can do it all faster.

Combine computer-aided design with big data and machine learning and you get the digital twin—a computer-generated model of an engine that can help predict how its parts will behave over time. That opens the door to another item on the Air Force’s wish list: predictive maintenance.

“Imagine doing predictive maintenance rather than reactive maintenance or scheduled maintenance,” Angelella says. “As a commander in the field, I would know which engines I can maybe keep going past the 200-hour inspection, and which ones I might need to pull off a little sooner.” The payoff would be more airplanes ready more quickly, “Imagine how much more efficient that could be.”

Digital data can also help accelerate the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase. By using digital modelling, rather than prototypes, to work out design kinks, testbeds can be eliminated, and, with them, all the costs associated with having working airframes, pilots, and other support.

Such is the Air Force’s faith in this approach, in fact, that when the competition begins for re-engining the Air Force’s B-52 bombers later this year, it will not include a conventional fly-off. Instead, the contest will compare engines in a digitally simulated comparison. 

GE is looking at two candidate engines for the B-52:

  • Its CF34-10, some 1,600 of which are currently flying in commercial jets worldwide;
  • Or its Passport engine, a newer model.

“We have years and years of data and analytics on how the CF34-10 performs and is sustained,” Angelella says. “That’s proven data rather than predictive data. That’s one of the strengths that we have, the symbiotic relationship between our commercial engine business and our military business. When a technology is proven out on the commercial side, we can incorporate that into the military”

Roper gets it, Angelella says. The confidence the Air Force is placing in the data has already allowed the Air Force to cut the development time for the B-52 contest by more than half, Angelella said. USAF’s contract with Boeing to do the integration was awarded in April, and officials aim to down-select the engine competitors by the end of 2020.

“That’s incredibly fast compared to similar acquisitions,” Angelella says. “Using these digital engineering tools allows you to do that and being able to take out physical flight testing obviously saves time. To be able to down select prior to actually putting the engine on the wing and doing the first flight test saves a lot of time and money.”

Materials and Physics

GE also plans to use digital modeling for its XA100 engine, which is being developed through the Air Force’s Advanced Engine Transition Program (ATEP). That engine will showcase another GE innovation, an advanced ceramic matrix composite that Angelella says “changes the game for hot-section design.”

Because it can withstand temperatures hundreds of degrees hotter than conventional metal alloys, “it doesn’t need to be cooled at traditional and higher turbine temperatures,” Angelella says, allowing for greater performance. This, says the former fighter pilot, is “the fighter pilot’s version: 10 percent more thrust.”

More than 30 years ago, GE revolutionized jet engines with the turbofan. The fan diverted air from the core to bypass the engine and cool it — producing big gains in both thrust and fuel efficiency. The F110 gave the Big Mouth Block 30 F-16 twice the range of the F-4, with its conventional turbojet J79 turbojet engine.

The new XA100 constitutes a similar generational shift in technology, says Angelella. In addition to 10 percent more thrust, its fuel efficiency is 25 percent greater, and range increases by almost a third. The engine can vary airflow by means of an adaptive cycle to balance airflow for both cooling and thrust. In addition, the new jet engine adds a third stream, wrapped around the engine, to provide additional cooling.

“This third stream gives you a leap in technology,” says Angelella. “Stealth aircraft are like thermoses: They don’t let the heat out.” The third airstream helps with thermal management for the whole aircraft, says Angelella: “It’s a heat-sink for weapons and other systems.”

Pricing: Risk vs. Trust

Another way GE is trying to accelerate acquisition is by eliminating time spent documenting facts manually, rather than leveraging computer technology to do the work faster.

Take the F110 engine, for example. GE has been building them for more than 30 years. “We pretty much know where the suppliers are and how much the materials cost,” Angelella says. “So why does it still take 18 months to land a Foreign Military Sales contract for F110s? If we took 18 months to settle pricing with an airline, we’d be out of business.”

GE has developed a digital pricing solution that uses historical data and influencing factors to apply data analytics to cost projections. “If we can use data analytics,” Angelella says, “we can shorten that 18 months to two or three months. And we’re very close to being able to do that now.”

GE has so much faith in the model, in fact, it’s willing to swallow all the risk and accept any financial downside should the projections turn out wrong. “If they can do it quicker with confidence in the company, we would accept the risk,” Angelella says, “That would be in the agreement.”

GE calls this “Brilliant Pricing,” and Angelella foresees a time when the process could be applied to improve transparency and confidence up and down the supply chain.

“The modelling that we’re using, we think it’s more accurate because you can see the algorithms,” Angelella says. “We can show it’s more accurate. It’s more transparent. It’s actually more auditable.”

GE already uses data analytics and accepts risk to manage its inventory and the risk of running short of any given component, and it’s entered into performance-based logistics contracts, such as one with the Australians for the F/A-18, that puts the onus on GE to maximize the sustainment of their own engines.

The stakes aren’t hard for Angelella to imagine. He lived on the receiving end of the pipeline long enough to understand the implications if engines don’t work when needed.

“The adversary isn’t going to take a knee if we take our time,” says Angelella. “That’s why it’s so important to go fast and stay ahead.”