There’s a place in Munich where innovations for jet engines and digital solutions for airlines take flight, a technology hub for GE Aviation in Europe and for Universities as well.

When it comes to air travel, Europe is still one of the busiest markets in the world. Today, half of the top 10 air traffic markets in terms of passenger numbers are European countries. Tomorrow, however, is another story.

While European air passengers are expected to grow annually at a rate of 2% over the next 20 years, with a total future market of 1.9 billion passengers, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that the global market for air travel will roughly double to 8.2 billion passengers, with the brunt of that growth happening in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa and the Middle East.

This is good news for the jet engine business since an increase in passengers will lead to greater demand for the means to carry them from point A to points B, C, D and beyond. But meeting that increased demand will require hard work.

Inside the Eurozone, GE Aviation’s 12,500 people are spread across 17 production sites. As far-flung as the various operations are, they are in constant contact, exchanging information and building on shared knowledge. And one of the central hubs is the Advanced Aviation Technology Center of Excellence in Munich.

“When we started in 2012, we were only 5 people” says Günter Wilfert, Engine Systems and Aviation Digital Solutions Leader at AAT. “Today we’re a team of more than 40, including some master students and interns. Most of our engineers are experts with a significant technology industry background, having worked for global aviation industry key players.” Wilfert himself is an aeronautical engineer who previously worked for such high-tech firms as ABB and MTU Aero Engines.

The AAT team studies, develops, and validates the newest technology in the sector with an emphasis on commercial engines that will be in service by 2030 to 2035. “Since our foundation, we have been committed to the new generation engine programs like LEAP, GE9X, GE Catalyst, Passport 20, but also on upgrades and technology integration to legacy turbines like the LM2500” Wilfert says. “We focus on what we call the high TRL area”—Technology Readiness Level—“which means aviation components or products in significantly mature phases of development.”

The Advanced Aviation Technology team in Munich, Germany.

Part of what drives innovation at the AAT is the increasing demand for commercial flights but alongside that is the challenge to meet global sustainability goals (European emissions reduction targets are scheduled to go into effect by 2050). “We’re highly involved in the Clean Sky European program, leading three core partner projects,” says Wilfert. “At the end of 2016, we established an Aviation Digital Services team in Munich, where we host the GE Aviation Accelerator for Europe.”

Accelerators are all the rage these days. Some serve as labs where entrepreneurs can grow the kernel of an idea into a full-blown product while others exist to solve problems, all with a healthy dose of tech-y know-how. GE Aviation has four additional accelerators situated around the globe—in Austin, Washington, D.C., Shanghai, and Dubai. Marc Dietrich, who serves as Global Services Portfolio Manager at Aviation Digital, describes the Munich accelerator as “a creative workspace whose primary focus is not to showcase products but to roll up sleeves and work directly with customers to solve some of their toughest challenges in the aviation space.”

On the whole, that means helping customers harness the power of their own data, collecting, analyzing and processing it to improve decision-making. “Every customer is different,” Dietrich says, “hence we offer product-related services like flight analytics, asset performance management, network operations, digital MRO and Airvault, which eases the interchange of configuration-related documentation between airlines and MROs.”

Think of the Aviation Digital Team in Munich as the 21st century version of Dr. Frankenstein’s Big Data Skunkworks, where success is achieved when a client organization becomes a fully cognitive enterprise. Whether they’re providing airlines, MROs, lessors or others in the commercial and military space with digital products and services, the team’s capabilities go above and beyond. They recently handled a passenger loyalty protection project to minimize the impact of delays on customer loyalty and helped another airline optimize meals planning and allocation, reducing costs and waste for a lower environmental impact.

Of course, the Advanced Aviation Technology center is not solely for customers. It also serves as GE Aviation’s permanent engineering “competence tank” in the E.U., where every European-based team can get support for any product or technology challenge. “We are seamlessly connected with Avio Aero, Dowty, EDC in Warsaw, TTC in Istanbul, GE Aviation Czech, and other European teams,” says Andreas Peters, Advanced Lead Engineer Aerodynamics. “And in addition, we rely on our external collaboration network with research centers and universities.”

The TUGraz Turbine Center Frame test rig with its creative containment frame reproducing constellations with led light.

While the AAT is equipped with test rigs, the engineers frequently team up with professors, scientists and PhD students to work on next-generation engine development in the test rig at the Graz University of Technology in Graz, Austria. The Graz test rig is unique in that it reproduces an entire sub-module of an engine. This is made up of a single-stage high pressure turbine (the Turbine Center Frame, or TCF, which is a transition duct connecting the high-pressure and the low-pressure turbine in an aircraft engine) and the first stage of a low-pressure turbine (the Turbine Vane Frame, or TVF), which can be tested in a dual-spool configuration.

“In the next years, we expect many new outcomes from the close cooperation with TU Graz, since the results delivered till now are outstanding” says Wilfert. “The University’s active involvement in European research programs like Clean Sky is accelerating technology developments and delivering high education for future aviation professionals. [Like] the Accelerator in Munich, it’s a key enabler to combine engineering with digital.”

Founded more than 200 years ago, TU Graz has a long tradition in teaching and research; among its more eminent students was Nikola Tesla, the father of electromagnetism. The campus, which serves more than 13,000 students (19% from abroad), has an entire building dedicated to thermal turbomachinery classes, labs, and test bays.

“We have three rigs, installed on two floors, and we’ve been working on turbine testing for almost 20 years,” says Prof. Franz Heitmeir, Dean of Mechanical Engineering and head of the Institute of Thermal Turbomachinery and Machine Dynamics. “The collaboration with GE Aviation started six years ago, even though we’ve always been involved in R&D funded by the Austrian government and in several Clean Sky research projects.”

The team of PhD Students and researchers led by Prof Heitmeir and Dr. Göttlich in front of the Graz University of Technology turbine test facility.

Emil Göttlich, a senior engineer who works with Prof. Heitmeir and five students on turbomachinery developments, has been intimately involved in utilizing the test rigs. “We need so much energy and electricity that we have to run most of the tests at night,” he says.

This was the inspiration for one of the more peculiar aspects of one of the Graz rigs: an arched containment frame, about 10 feet long and six feet tall, that houses the turbines during joint testing with the AAT. Göttlich and the team poured their creativity into this frame. “We painted a blue sky on the outer surface, while inside we drew a night sky with constellations, adding LED lights and captions,” he says. “It lights up during our nighttime testing and under the containment frame we can see our teams’ zodiac signs and favorite stars.”

Should they need more inspiration for their work on Clean Sky technologies, they only have to look up.