Since opening 26 years ago, employees at GE Aviation Durham’s manufacturing plant in North Carolina have helped build products for the company’s biggest commercial engine programs. The plant was originally started for the launch of the GE90 widebody jet engine.
Durham was the first GE facility to use a self-management work approach called teaming with nearly 400 employees split into 18 teams. The 18 employee teams across Durham are further split up among engine lines and job duties. Yet, they all directly report to the plant manager.
Over the years, Durham has gained a reputation around GE Aviation as ‘the’ assembly location to start new product introductions, having also helped jumpstart the Passport and LEAP engine lines. Today, employees assemble GE90, GEnx and LEAP* aircraft engines.
The Durham team is putting finishing touches on the layout of its new LEAP assembly area and making space on the shop floor to build the GE9X. As you read this, the site is also celebrating a major production milestone on the GEnx program.
In August 2019, a group of assembly technicians who call themselves Team Raven completed production of the 2,000th GEnx engine. When they recently reached the 2,000th engine milestone, “it helped us to take a step back from the pressures of work and show that we are a part of a bigger thing here and that our customers have confidence in us. It showed all of us on the GEnx lines that we’re all in this together,” said Jacob Thomas, pictured above, GEnx assembly and test technician for Team Raven.
Thomas has worked at Durham for four years. His Team Raven is one of the four teams that works on the GEnx—the other GEnx teams are dubbed Equipodos, Kodiak and Mirage. He began his career at GE working on the GE90 engine and switched over to the GEnx after about a year and a half. “It is very common to move around to different engine lines. Technicians can switch over to different programs, and we are constantly loaning people to other teams when the need arises. We rely on each other for everything; there isn’t a night that I am not collaborating with other people.”
On top of his official title, Thomas also manages production and is a workstation owner for the combustion module build and the high-pressure turbine stage two nozzleodular build. “Our self-directed work force allows us to decide how engaged we want to be in the facility. Right now, I am wearing two to three hats. Some wear more, and some wear less, but it takes all of us working as our own self-directed unit to make this giant team of Durham.”
Team Raven has a meeting every day to discuss metrics and to check in on how everyone is doing in their jobs. The meeting starts by discussing safety, quality and delivery, which are highly important to the entire plant. “We all have a common goal, which is to ship the engines with great quality and price to the customer,” Thomas said. However, as a self-directed workforce, how they accomplish these goals is purely on them.
“When we are assigned an engine’s serial number, we decide how that engine is put together. Each team is different, but we all take ownership of that engine, all the way from quality, when we build it, how we build it, etc.” When an engine is ready to ship, a member from every team inspects it to ensure the engine meets blueprint specifications.
In a self-directed plant, cross-training and collaboration are highly encouraged. “I can’t emphasize enough that our employees make the Durham engine facility the great place that is,” said Bob Sollom, senior operations manager for the GEnx program. “The teaming culture and self-direction allow for technician engagement like no other facility I’ve worked in, and the technician flexibility enables Durham to overcome even the most challenging obstacles. This is a very experienced and creative workforce.”
The GEnx engine, the fastest-selling widebody engine that GE Aviation has ever produced, marked its 15th year since launching in April 2004. With the most advanced technologies and materials, the GEnx has the highest reliability and utilization, lowest fuel burn and longest range capable of any engine on the Boeing 787 aircraft, providing airlines with more flights per year and more revenue opportunities. More than 1,900 engines are flying today with 60 operators of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners and 747-8 aircraft.
Chelsey Levingston contributed to this story.
*LEAP engines are products of CFM International, a 50-50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.