Interview with Milan Šlapák, President General Electric
Czech Republic and Slovakia
It keeps resonating in the marketplace and in the media, why is that? What’s the current status of the development?
The GE Catalyst engine is the first new, clean-sheet design turboprop and it brings a generational change;
the following comparison might sound too ambitious and overly self-confident but it is like when you switch from a steam-powered locomotive to a fully electric one, or like when you fly economy class somewhere in the third world and then you fly first class with Emirates. We took the well-known and proven technologies from the large commercial engines or biz-jet engines, scaled them down to fit the small/mid class turboprop engine core and introduced those to the Business & General Aviation market segment. Nobody has done that before, existing engines in this category were certified some thirty years ago. Engine is demonstrating new advancements in testing that have never been achieved by a competing turboprop in this segment. I’ll put it this way…
GE’s Catalyst currently has 98 patented technologies on the engine. That’s how serious and committed we are to the market. The industry knows that, media experts know that, everybody’s watching.
We have multiple engine prototypes in the ground test cells, with hundreds of testing hours already accumulated. Actually we announced at EBACE the completion more than 1,000 hours of testing. In May, wee finished the test campaign in the altitude chamber in Canada with excellent results. Engine was testedup to 41,000 feet and the team validated the performance and operability. This engine performs exceptionally well, it’s like a rocket!
Now our target is to start flight testing by the end of the year.
What does generational change really mean for the customers?
You get some typical benefits such as a better power performance, lower fuel consumption, better overall economics, etc. – those are must-have parameters. The biggest game changer comes from a pilot workload simplification.
The Catalyst engine is controlled by a FADEC… there is a fully digital automatic control of the engine and propeller in one box. Pilots use only a single lever instead of multiple ones so he or she can focus on other important elements during the flight, which increases the overall flight safety, plus it protects the engine from pilot mistakes causing damage to the engine such over temperature or over torque. Plus, the FADEC decides how to adjust the compressor’s variable geometry or a fuel flow based on various external conditions during the flight, so it optimises the engine performance and the economics of the flight. Using an analogy again, it is like driving a car with a manual transmission versus an automatic one. Way easier for you… you never want to switch back.
Why do you believe that investing in turboprops makes sense? Noise, vibrations, perception of the risk – aren’t jets taking over?
Great question. I operate in the business and general aviation market segment but what I am going to say applies to regional aviation as well. There are certain typical route distances where jet versus turboprop makes a travel time difference 5-10 minutes only but the cost per mile (BGA segment) or the cost per mile per seat (regional turboprops) makes double digit difference. It is a huge operating cost advantage. Furthermore, the reliability of the turboprop engines, thanks to the technology, enables single engine airplanes and single pilot operations so cost-wise, it is a highly competitive value proposition.
And yes, turboprops have this label of noisy vibrating boxes. This is exactly why Textron pays such huge attention to the Cessna Denali features. That airplane will be powered by the Catalyst engine. Cessna Denali is all about giving its customers exactly the same experience as if they were flying a jet and those requirements are cascaded onto the engine requirements, propeller requirements and other systems. Google the cockpit of Cessna Denali… it is exactly the same cockpit as you would see inside a jet. Even small details such as the window diameter are addressed. It is an amazing airplane and therefore it needs an amazing engine.
What do competitors do about that?
Of course, they do not sit idle. That’s the beauty of the competition – we all need that otherwise there would be no progress, no innovation. Nobody offers FADEC in the BGA turboprop environment except us… We now see competitors coming up with some new upgrades such as electronic engine control, auto-throttle, etc.
Now, we introduced electronic engine control last year on our H-series turboprop engines, it is a great help to pilots and it is an evolution stage between a classic hydro-mechanical engine control, current market standard, and a full digital control, the FADEC solution. It perfectly satisfies the needs of a specific market segment, but it is nothing like FADEC. It is by far not in the same league, so “FADEC-like” remarks are a nonsense. FADEC is FADEC. Period.
I noted some press releases on your side regarding urban mobility, electric power, cooperation with companies such as AGB and Jetoptera, are you expanding into other aviation areas as well?
The reason why GE Aviation is the world leader in aviation is that the company invests billions of dollars in technology to always stay ahead of the game. The same applies to us at GE Aviation Turboprops. I personally believe that we are still years away from either semi or fully electric airplanes; one reason is technology maturity, primary battery life and power density, because the segment we’re in is flying high and fast, second reason being legislation readiness, and the evolution will be a hybrid solution first. And for a hybrid, you still need a turbine to generate power first which is where turboprop engines come into the game eventually. There are over one hundred companies, mostly start-ups, working on various urban mobility solutions and vertical take-off and landing solutions for overcrowded cities.
They work on various technologies and various technical approaches addressing the same problem. Most of these start-ups will fail but they are extremely important because these pioneers will sooner or later find the right few solutions and those solutions will become standards, changing our life forever. We believe in this market adjacencies and definitively want to stay ahead of the game to make sure we are part of the right solution once the right time comes. If I oversimplify the approach, it is like throwing spaghetti against the wall and waiting for what sticks. In a smart way.
These are highly revolutionary concepts which is why we stay quiet on these activities and our lips will remain sealed for a while.
What other markets where you are not present today do you consider as a new territory?
Our activities used to focus on piloted airplanes. With FADEC capability, with a way better fuel consumption than that of competitors, excellent high-altitude capability, the UAV market offers a great opportunity to get into. Imagine that…The Catalyst can fly really high, really long while FADEC takes care of everything. Ideal. Also, technically speaking, FADEC is an enabler to autonomous flights – not remotely controlled airplanes, but truly autonomous.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned your work on aerobatic engine. Is it completed?
It is another example of us broadening the product portfolio to cover multiple market segments. Single engine turboprop trainers in the field are aging and there is a need not only for replacements but also for the next generation. Similar to Aero Vodochody that smartly launches L39NG for the jet trainers, we see a big potential in the turboprop trainers which are the first steps for the pilots before they jump into a jet fighter.
Certification progresses will be done in the early 2020. The first announced customer is Diamond Aircraft that is working on certification of the DART550. The testing of the H75 ACRO has been done by VZLU in Prague which is exactly why I have been stressing out the importance of developing a broader aviation specific R&D eco-system in the Czech Republic to enable our growth. ►
► Talking about the eco-system brings me to your cooperation with the Czech Technical University (ČVUT), which has been running for some time. Could you say why, when and for what purpose did it start? And whose idea was it?
That goes back to 2015/2016 when we were deciding on where to place the global headquarter for GE Aviation Turboprops. We knew we were not looking only for a place where to manufacture the Catalyst engine but for a place where we could also have the Engineering Center of Excellence, R&D activities, because we never stop working on new engine features, new engine models, etc. And to have highly competitive, multi-discipline and flexible R&D activities, you cannot have all the capability and capacity in-house, that’s an old fashion business model, you need to have an external network of excellent partners. We believe we found such key pillar with ČVUT, plus some other important and strong elements of the chain such as VUT Brno and VZLU to name just a few. This gives us flexibility to create the right mix of partners for various projects. If we did not believe this eco-system of highly talented R&D partners could be created in the Czech Republic, we would have not picked this place for the global HQ. Innovation is the business growth driver for us, so without a competitive eco-system, we could not compete in the marketplace as a company.
From what I understood from our earlier discussions, the cooperation between GE Aviation’s and ČVUT has three main phases. Could you describe them?
That’s correct, there are three main phases. They evolve over time and also overlap a bit as you transition from one phase to another. The first phase is when we jointly develop the R&D infrastructure, mostly in a form of ground test cells, test vehicles and experimental flying test cell. This stage is nearly completed, two ground test cells of the aircraft engines are already up and running and generate terabytes of data as we speak, remaining test cells shall start running by end of this year. Considering the complexity of this R&D infrastructure, ČVUT has been progressing in a record-setting pace, hats off to the team there.
The second phase is about a know how transfer from GE to ČVUT. That started about mid-2018 and will continue for a couple of years. For example, we teach the University how to design its own experiments in a test cell, run the experiment and then interpret the test data. Sounds rather basic but there is massive expertise behind it. At the same time, we also started with the most critical know how transfer which is teaching ČVUT how to design the turboprop engine, model the performance of a future engine, etc. This truly falls into a category of the most valuable intellectual property on GE side, therefore we paid a special attention to the process of know how, including elements such as cybersecurity, preventing industrial espionage, etc.
The third phase is what ČVUT researchers are excited about the most … the real research. The ČVUT objective is to develop a new methodology of designing a preventive turboprop engine maintenance model.
That’s why we first need to transfer the know how of engine design, modelling the theoretical performance and why we need the R&D infrastructure such as the test cells because these will be generating the real engine data that ČVUT researchers will be matching against the theoretical models and validating the results. This is a prime example of ultra-high value-added R&D and innovation.
It is safe for GE Aviation to share and transfer the corporate know how?
This was one of the top critical items during the decision-making process. GE Aviation is a world leader in the aviation market and this is because of an exceptional focus on customer care and customer success, as well as of technology leadership. Therefore, protecting our IP and know how is ultra-important to us. Without going into details, there are plenty of bad guys out there who try hard to get into somebody else’s intellectual property. People usually think it is only in Mission Impossible movies, but it is a very real life if you live in the environment filled with cutting-edge technologies.
You can imagine we are extremely careful when it gets down to know how transfers and IP sharing. It is about data storage, controlled data access, contractual commitments to protect the IP, staff training, IT cybersecurity, etc. It is actually a lot of fun – at least for me, I enjoy it because I learn a lot at the same time.
The Czech pride at GE Aviation today is the series-produced H80 engine, and the modern Catalyst engine currently in development. However, you have already revealed that you want to develop another, even better engine in the Czech Republic. Can you elaborate a little more on this idea? Will ČVUT participate in this project as well?
Well, I have not spoken about it yet but as you touched upon it, let’s get specific. There is a super exciting opportunity to bring parts of R&D activities together with the assembly of a top-class turbofan engine which powers private or corporate jets. Such engine power class and technology has never been produced in the Czech Republic, so it would be amazing to develop such capability here.
Thanks to the new R&D infrastructure and expertise that we have developed in the Czech Republic recently due to the Catalyst and due to our cooperation with ČVUT and other external R&D partners, I feel we have what it takes to be successful. However, it also depends on several other external factors which are out of our hands. We will see in a few months.
ČVUT would definitively be invited to participate. It would be silly to invest all that effort in creating engine design and production capacity and capability in the country and to stop with the Catalyst. The new R&D eco-system is extremely competitive in terms of what it can offer.
Does it mean that you would be designing and producing jet engines in the Czech Republic too?
In the short and medium term, definitely not. This country simply does not have the expertise to design an entirely clean sheet turbofan engine of the complexity and technology involved with regard to the engines I am talking about. And will not have that expertise and capacity for at least another 10 years. Our top priority and focus is on turboprop engines … we must master that segment to perfection first. In parallel, I would like GE Aviation in the Czech Republic to participate in the turbofan activities and become a part of the GE turbofan, or jet engine if you like, family and prove that we ultimately deserve a seat at the table.
Who knows, maybe in the near future we will change from GE Aviation Turboprops to “GE Aviation Small Engines” or something like that, to expand our current Czech footprint.
Interviewed by: Kateřina Ševčíková Urbanová, Martin Schwarz
Photo: Jan Pirgl