GE Aviation's Winnipeg engine-test facility is about to undergo a $26-million upgrade, extending its strategic value from strictly cold-weather testing to include a wider range of tests.

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GE Aviation's Winnipeg engine-test facility is about to undergo a $26-million upgrade, extending its strategic value from strictly cold-weather testing to include a wider range of tests.

The GE Aviation Test Research and Development Centre (TRDC), located in the northwest corner of the Richardson International Airport property, was built in 2011 and has become an increasingly valuable asset to both GE and StandardAero, which operates the facility for GE.

Plans and design are underway to refit the facility. The most obvious change will be replacing the mammoth 800,000-pound wind tunnel and ice-crystal projector with one that is even larger. The work is scheduled to be completed by the end of the fall of 2017.

The $26-million upgrade is necessary because GE is developing a new engine model substantially larger than ones currently being tested in Winnipeg.

When the $54-million TRDC was originally commissioned in 2011, it was almost exclusively used to do a series of cold-weather testing programs mandated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

But for the first time this summer, GE conducted endurance tests on one of its new LEAP (Leading-Edge Aviation Propulsion) engines that will be featured on new versions of a number of popular mid-sized jets, including the Boeing 737Max, the Airbus A320neo and the Chinese-made Comac C919.

"We've hit some major milestones," said Rob Baillie, a StandardAero employee who is the production manager at the TRDC. "We just finished the first summer test and the first endurance test."

The TRDC is also now doing endurance testing, dust-ingestion and hailstone-ingestion testing as well as bird-ingestion testing, where various-sized birds are fired into the engines at various speeds according to FAA requirements.

(Asked how they get the birds, all Baillie would say is, "We have a local company that supplies the bird.")

With a $7-million annual budget, it is now manned by a full-time staff of 16, all but one of whom are StandardAero employees.

StandardAero is the world's largest independent engine-maintenance, repair and overhaul operation. Its management company is based in the Phoenix area, but Winnipeg is by far its largest centre with more than 1,300 employees.

(StandardAero and GE Aviation won the 2012 Canadian American Business Council Achievement Award for their collaboration on the TRDC.)

Jorge Viramontes, the Winnipeg-based lead engineer with GE Aviation, said the Winnipeg facility is fulfilling an ever-increasing role for GE -- already responsible for about 60 per cent of the commercial aircraft engines around the world -- as it embarks on an unprecedented period of new engine development.

"This is a very unique era in GE aviation," Viramontes said. "We are replacing pretty much all our engine lines."

That includes the LEAP engine, the Passport engine for the Bombardier Global 7000 and 8000 series, the HF120 for the Honda Jet and the large GE9X for the Boeing 777.

Although the LEAP engine is still in the testing phase with only about 30 in existence, GE has already booked more than 9,000 orders and commitments for the new engine.

"We are all going to start hearing lots about the LEAP engine," Viramontes said. "And last year we has the very first LEAP engine ever built -- serial number 001 -- here in Winnipeg for icing testing here. It was pretty exciting."

That was likely an indication of the trust and commitment GE has shown the Winnipeg facility.

Another is the fact it would initially send its own technical staff up from Cincinnati -- GE Aviation headquarters -- to man the controls when a new engine test was put up on the test stand in Winnipeg.

Now it is entirely staffed by StandardAero.

Ken Webb, the executive director of the Manitoba Aerospace Association, said after only four years of operation, GE's TRDC has already become a strategic asset in the community, and it is about to become even more so.

"All the new engines have to be tested and certified," Webb said." GE needed extra capacity, and having it in Winnipeg is a tremendous opportunity to capture a lot of the new activity from GE."

The TRDC also hosts a public-private sector research operation called West Canitest R&D Inc. (WestCaRD). Bob Hastings, the newly named president and CEO of WestCaRD, was emphatic about the support it receives from GE.

Next month, WestCaRD is hosting a number of GE research people in Winnipeg for a two-day symposium that will involve researchers from the University of Manitoba, Red River College and Winnipeg engineering firms.

Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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