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Drive southeast from Montreal along Highway 10, and the city centre soon gives way to the bucolic landscape of the Montérégie region’s small mountains, arable plateaus, and rolling hills best known for vineyards, hiking and other outdoor activities.
It’s not exactly where you’d expect to find a high-tech hub. Yet nestled in the small town of Bromont, at the foot of Mount Brome, lies one of the leading developers of aerospace manufacturing automation, an engine components company maximizing robots in its own processes and exporting automation solutions worldwide.
With over 80 facilities globally, General Electric Aviation could have selected from any number of locations to establish its Global Robotics and Automation Centre in 2011. Bromont, however, stood out. It was the most automated facility in the GE Aviation supply chain, and it was in the thick of Quebec’s energetic and rich technology and aerospace R&D cluster.
“We are a well-kept secret,” admitted Alain Ouellette, the centre’s executive leader. “[But] we were heavily invested in automation, and we had demonstrated the capabilities, so it was a natural flow into the automation centre.”
Bromont manufacturers compressor blades and vanes for such engines as the CFM56, the widely-used turbofan engine produced by CFM International, a joint venture between Safran and GE; the Leap, the highly advanced eventual replacement for the CFM56 series; and the GEnx, a next-generation engine for, among others, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and 747-8. It also produces parts for Safran and for IHI’s (Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries) CF34-8 and CF34-10 engines.
The facility produced 3.2 million parts last year and is expected to exceed four million in 2017 as CFM56 production levels off and Leap production ramps up. Remarkably, while the workload has steadily increased year over year, the workforce of 700 has remained largely the same, due primarily to automation.
“Back in ’83, for the whole year, we produced five CFM engines. Today, (in a 12-hour shift) we produce five engines,” said Bill Mateer, site operations manager.
Bromont was built as a state-of-the-art facility in the early 1980s, an industrial and technological benefit commitment related to the purchase of the CF-188 Hornet fighter jets, and, like much of the manufacturing sector at the time, immediately began experimenting with robotics. But the venture proved to be short-lived. Too few processes were robust or repetitive enough to automate successfully, and by 1985 the robots were removed.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, we tried things and found that automating a bad process gives you cheaper bad parts, but they are still going to be bad,” said Ouellette.
“We didn’t have process control,” added Mateer. “Robots do excellent work when you have a repeatable process. We didn’t have it.”
What GE Aviation calls its “automation journey” took flight in the late 1990s as the Japanese principles of kaizen (continuous improvement) and lean (waste reduction) took root in North American manufacturing. For Bromont, robots also help to solve critical health and safety problems, especially for workers sweltering in repetitive and hazardous forging processes.
“We did a lot of kaizen activities, we leaned out the processes, and it became evident that we had opportunities for automation,” Ouellette explained. “And then people started asking for robots. That was the great thing. They said, ‘Have you thought of putting a robot here?’ It has just snowballed since the late ’90s.”
Today, the facility features over 150 robots performing a variety of forging, forming, testing and inspection processes. And poor safety ratings, which hampered the company’s performance two decades ago, have been replaced by best-in-class practices.
GE Aviation may have placed the Global Robotics and Automation Centre in Bromont, but the Bromont shop floor comprises only a small part of the centre’s focus. It has served as a testbed for automating compressor and vane manufacturing, but the company consists of at least seven different value streams–from airfoils, to composites, engine component repair, assembly and testing–at over 80 facilities in 20 countries, and the robotics centre has a mandate to help develop automation solutions for all.
Starting from a small team of mostly local hires, the centre has grown to almost 50 engineers. It works with Fanuc Robotics Canada to design and build the actual automation solutions, but draws on the guidance of the chief manufacturing engineer for each value stream as well as site visits to identify priorities and processes ripe and robust enough for automation.
So far, Ouellette and his team have travelled to half of the facilities across GE’s global network, from Europe, to Asia, South America and throughout North America, and have developed an automation “growth playbook” for each value stream, a roadmap to guide the systematic introduction of robotics that leverages the innovation within and across each stream.
“We try to develop a solution that is going to be generic for a value stream. Once we have made a copy of something and we have it working well, and we have it in site A, ideally site B is also able to use that same technology,” he explained. “We will tweak it slightly for a different product, but 80 per cent of the engineering is reusable. We don’t want to invent a customized solution for every site.”
Recent accomplishments include robots for GE’s new additive manufacturing plant in Auburn, Ala.; an automated engine inspection system for Peebles, Ohio, to ensure CFM engines destined for Boeing are correctly assembled; and early work on a solution for an engine assembly facility in Lafayette, Ind., to inspect a fully assembled engine for all the correct nuts, bolts and brackets. In total, the Bromont centre expects to deliver around $11 million in automation solutions for the GE supply chain this year.
“The selection of the projects is heavily scrutinized to make sure we hit the right priorities with the right return on investment,” Ouellette said. “Most are new applications that are developed here and then transported around the world. We export Quebec know-how and expertise around the world.”
The Bromont factory floor is a captivating blend of human and robot interaction. While many of the automated processes are of the dull and dangerous variety–the repetitive forging of small parts in front of a hot furnace that requires human monitoring or the precision honing of enhanced leading edges on next-generation compressor blades–others are more sophisticated examples of collaboration in which machine and human work together to produce parts.
An initial fear that robots would replace large segments of the workforce proved unfounded. “We found the opposite,” said Mateer, noting that even with the removal of some 50 million manual operations in forging and forming, the number of employees remains mostly the same.
In fact, the workforce has become more technically proficient, trained to understand, adjust and operate parts of robotic equipment. “We didn’t send our operators to school, we trained them here to manage the robots,” said Ouellette. “The idea is, let’s raise the skill set; let’s prepare them for the future.”
As advanced as many of the automated systems may seem, they represent only the first steps in a much longer “smart factory” journey that will eventually see the introduction of artificial intelligence, led by GE’s global research centre in Niskayuna, N.Y.
“We are in the early stages of hooking up our machines to systems that will bring them judgement, the ability to make decisions, able to work in an autonomous way,” said Ouellette.
Next generation engines will introduce new alloys, ceramic matrix composites, and additive manufacturing, all of which will require further innovation and automation, he observed. “Technology constantly evolves; it is a never-ending story.”
At present, the automation solutions are what he called Predix-capable, GE’s cloud-based analytics platform for the data generated by industrial equipment that will eventually drive critical decision-making. “We are not fully connected yet, but since the ’90s this has become more and more a data-driven business.”
That is reflected in things like the measurement and management of coolant for machine tools. Ten years ago, every machine had its own cooling system; today, “we have centralized the coolant, we have better control over the temperature, the cleanliness, and we have simplified the maintenance program on the equipment,” he explained.
Despite the remote location, GE Aviation has had little difficulty attracting talent. Bromont sits between Montreal and Sherbrooke, with access to a half dozen universities and technical schools, all developing graduates eager for well-paying jobs and rewarding work. It may be within commuting distance of Montreal, but it offers a quality of life ideal for families.
“It puts us in the middle of a very generous ecosystem of engineering,” said Ouellette. “We have a variety of different engineering challenges that make it interesting for people to come and work here.”
And when others downsize, GE Aviation has opened its doors, recently capturing talent from IBM, among others.
The Global Robotics and Automation Centre may still be a relatively well-kept secret, but as more of its solutions change manufacturing and business processes in GE Aviation facilities around the world, it won’t remain that way for long.