'It's cold - we like it:' GE expands jet engine cold weather testing centre in Winnipeg

General Electric is flying its jet engine business straight into a Manitoba cold front.

General Electric picks Manitoba capital for expansion of cold weather testing facility

General Electric is flying its jet engine business straight into a Manitoba cold front. 1:53
General Electric is flying its jet engine business straight into a Manitoba cold front.

The technology giant is set to pump $26 million into an expansion of its jet engine testing facility at Winnipeg's James Richardson International Airport.

"Yes, it's cold. We like it," said GE engineer Jorge Viramontes. "This is the only [cold weather] test facility for GE right now. Every new jet engine you'll see in the market for the next 30 to 40 years, you'll see a significant amount of its certification done here in Manitoba by Manitobans."

Technicians inspect a jet engine prototype at GE Aviation Test Research and Development Centre in Winnipeg. (Gary Solilak)
The GE Aviation Test Research and Development Centre sits on the north end of the airfield. Since 2011, GE has used it for cold weather testing in partnership with Winnipeg-based StandardAero.

During winter months a giant wind-tunnel comprised of seven large fans blows air into prototype engines that are suspended at the end of the tunnel.

Besides blowing air into the engine's intake, the tunnel can replicate cloud conditions, including producing droplets of water which under cold conditions, either on the ground in winter climates or while flying at cruising altitude, can freeze inside an engine, potentially causing a loss of power or even a flame out.

"The engine has to be able to accommodate a certain amount of ice build up on the surfaces of the engine," said StandardAero production manager Rob Baillie. "If the ice were to break off the engine has to sustain operation."

While the cold is the primary attraction for GE , the partnership with StandardAreo gives it access to a trained workforce.

StandardAero meanwhile gets in on the ground floor for future maintenance contracts as new engines are developed for the commercial market.

"This allows us to get involved with testing at initial stages. That gives us unique opportunities in the future to get involved with engine programs as they enter the market," said Baillie.

This cold weather wind tunnel will be replaced in $26M expansion at the GE Aviation Test Research and Development Centre in Winnipeg. (Cameron MacIntosh)
Right now GE has about 60 per cent of the commercial jet engine industry and demand is growing.

There are estimates that 35,000 new passenger jets will be delivered over the next 20 years.

The Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, predicts jet engine sales to top $500 billion over the next decade.

Boeing said in a news release its new 737 Max is the fastest selling passenger jet in its history, with more than 2000 orders worth more than $209 billion, including orders from Air Canada and WestJet.

The 737 Max will use GE's new Leap series of engines, which have been tested in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile Boeing also has 306 orders for a new super-liner called the 777X which is expected to go into service in 2020. GE is developing a new engine for it called the 9X which it also plans to test in Winnipeg.

"There are a number of upgrades we need to put into this facility to test that engine," said Viramontes .

To accommodate the engine, the wind-tunnel will be completely rebuilt. The plans aren't finalized yet, but GE hopes to start testing in December 2017.

Expansion won't stop there. GE is also looking at other testing programs for Winnipeg

This summer GE also conducted an engine endurance test.

"In the future GE is looking at this as a year-round facility," said Viramontes.

Meanwhile GE isn't the only engine maker attracted to Manitoba's cold. Its two main competitors in the jet engine market, Rolls Royce and Pratt and Whitney, also run a test facility in Thompson, Man. 

Between the two facilities, Viramontes estimates about 80 per cent of cold weather testing for passenger jet engines is being done in Manitoba.

"Manitoba is playing a big role. With this expansion we'll play a bigger role. We'll be busy for years to come." he said.


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