GE’s Quebec Plant Leading Automation Charge In Aerospace

Reposted from aviationweek.com on April 24, 2017 by Graham Warwick

The gift for visitors to GE Aviation’s  plant in Bromont, Quebec, is a bottle of maple syrup made across the road at the family farm of one of the employees. This is an unlikely place to see a revolution in motion—and find one of the key players in that upheaval.

Built as part of the offset program for Canada’s 1980s purchase of GE F404-powered CF-18 fighters, this plant 55 mi. east of Montreal has the mandate within GE to produce compressor blades and vanes for the GEnx and CFM International CFM56, now migrating to its Leap 1 replacement.

Bromont produced 3.2 million parts in 2016, and this will increase this year as Leap production ramps up. “CFM56 is leveling off, not dropping off, so Leap production is additive, which is why we will produce four million parts in 2017,” says Alain Ouellette, director of operations.

Growth has been impressive. In 1983, Bromont produced parts for five CFM engines a year. Now it produces parts for five CFM engines every 12-hr. day. A tour of the factory shows how that has been achieved and why this Canadian plant is at the vanguard of automation in aerospace manufacturing.

Robots at GE Aviation plant

Credit: GE Aviation

There are more than 150 manufacturing robots at Bromont, supported by more than 160 coordinate measuring machines that automate parts inspection. This is the result of $85 million of investment in 2010-16. Bromont is also home to the global robotics and automation center, a team that builds robots for all GE Aviation sites worldwide.

This is not the first time Bromont has used robots, but the original systems were removed because “we did not have the process control,” says Ouellette.  Cpk—a measure of how well a manufacturing process is understood and controlled—has to be greater than 1 for automation to succeed, he says. “This is in place, so now we can automate.”

Because of the parts it produces, Bromont is probably one of the few aerospace facilities where production volumes approach automotive levels. In rows of yellow cages, industrial robots move blades in and out of forging presses and forming machines—repetitive processes in difficult environments that must be performed precisely to maintain quality.

In one cell, two robots work together to load and unload the ovens and press, speeding up the process. In another, a robot arm with two grippers picks up the formed blade at the same time as it places a new one into the press—doubling throughput and circumventing the cost and space of a second machine.

Other robots visually inspect the leading edge of every compressor blade, which is deliberately slightly oversize. They calculate what needs to be removed, precisely grind the blade to its final shape and reinspect it. Bromont is adding a second robot arm to these cells, developed with Canadian robotic finishing specialist AV&R, to increase throughput.

And in a corner of the plant—conspicuously not contained behind the customary yellow barrier that keeps robot and human safely apart—is a glimpse of the future: an experimental collaborative robotic cell. Two small robot arms (see photo) cooperate to sort and stack metal blanks into cartridges an operator loads into a machine that rolls the banks into vanes. Approach the cell and the robots sense and slow down for safety.

But Bromont’s “secret” is the area where a 35-strong engineering team designs and builds robotic cells for GE Aviation manufacturing and repair centers around the world. “Bromont was the most automated center in GE, so it made sense to collocate the team here,” says Ouellette.

The global automation center has even produced its first robots for GE’s new additive manufacturing plant in Auburn, Alabama, to handle the powder for and remove support structures from printed parts. The team will deliver $11 million in automation solutions in 2017, including a system at GE’s Peebles, Ohio, test site that visually inspects CFM engines to ensure they are correctly assembled.

The environment is conducive to automation at Bromont: The workforce is nonunion, management is participative, and a gain-sharing program ensures that everyone benefits from improved performance. Robots can cost jobs, “but we saw the opposite,” says Ouellette. Workers who once forged and formed parts manually were retrained as operators and now run parks of robotic cells. The effect is dramatic, the impact hard to understate.