Advanced Materials & Manufacturing
The world’s largest aircraft engine will be maintained at the GE Aviation site in Nantgarw, South Wales. It’s the latest vote of confidence in a facility that has achieved global recognition as a centre of excellence in the aviation industry.
Cutting-edge engineering knowledge, rigorous standards, constant innovation: the aviation industry has always demanded the best from its people and its products. That’s why global giant GE Aviation’s choice of its Nantgarw facility to maintain, repair and overhaul (MRO) its new GE9X engine is such a big deal, says managing director Nick Blakeney.
“Nothing is more exciting than having a brand-new engine coming to the Wales facility,” he says. “We’re hoping to demonstrate best practice not just across GE Aviation, but show that we’re world-class within the wider industry as well.”
The Nantgarw site is no stranger to excellence. It’s one of the largest aircraft maintenance facilities in the world, with more than 90 customers on its books and the ability to handle more than 500 engines a year.
Its engineering team wrote GE Aviation’s technical manual on overhauling engines (known internally as the “Bible”). And it’s one of just three facilities able to perform the full MRO service on the GE90, currently the world's most powerful aircraft engine.
The GE9X will place even greater demand on the site. Once built, it will be the world's largest aircraft engine and will be 10% more fuel-efficient than the GE90. It has been designed and produced for the new Boeing 777X aircraft, and it’s hoped that test engines will be on site in Nantgarw by the end of 2019.
GE’s decision to bring the GE9X to Wales was by no means a foregone conclusion. Blakeney says: “We had to work hard to win that contract. Of course, we have the expertise and the experience. But the support and encouragement we received from the Welsh Government really made a difference. The First Minister personally travelled to our head office in Cincinnati to support us.
“Having a devolved government means that Wales is engaged and supportive of businesses, and there’s a real commitment to working together in partnership. The Welsh Government has supported the £20 million investment.”
The expertise that the Nantgarw facility relies upon hasn’t appeared out of nowhere. There’s a long-standing and highly regarded apprenticeship programme, which attracts on average around 400 candidates for between 20 and 25 apprenticeship places every year, making it more selective than the world’s top universities. The three-year course is run in partnership with the local FE college, Coleg y Cymoedd in Treforest.
It’s an initiative that’s fundamental to the success of GE Aviation, says Blakeney. “The college is very close to the site, so apprentices can access an incredible hands-on, real-life learning experience, and they get brilliant support from the rest of the workforce. Being such a big brand, GE is very attractive to young people. And the college are true partners: they are very responsive to our needs as a business and work closely to ensure that our business priorities are reflected in the course.”
Learning doesn’t begin and end with apprenticeships. A dedicated learning and development department co-ordinates and runs a wide range of personal development and job-specific courses. GE also has a close relationship with the University of South Wales through its Network75 programme, a five-year work and study route to a degree in which undergraduates apply their academic knowledge to real-life work within GE Aviation Wales. The programme has been turning out industry-ready graduates since 2000, with a 100% employment record.
Nantgarw is also the place of choice for other GE technical staff to come for their training. Currently, around 40 engineers from Poland are studying in Wales to ready themselves for the GE9X. “We have become very important to the GE family, as they look to Wales for development and training,” says Blakeney. “It’s a massive vote of confidence in us as a site.”
Wales, he points out, has a great manufacturing and engineering legacy. Nantgarw will continue to take that forward. The site’s five-year plan is aimed at staying competitive, increasing capacity and improving productivity.
He says: “All these things are all going to be massive benefits for the Welsh economy – for the people we employ and for our business. There’s a real sense of pride, and people want to be part of this. And because aviation is always changing, there are even bigger things to come for our site in the future.”