PW PurePower Turbofan Engine

Alcoa’s Technical Center (ATC) in New Kensington has been busy with more than just disrupting the automotive industry with its advancements in materials science, as reported here last week. Alcoa’s technology breakthroughs at ATC are also aggressively capturing demand in the fast-growing aerospace market.

Three recent moves at Alcoa, already the world’s largest airfoil manufacturer, are noted: the $1.1 billion deal with Pratt & Whitney; the nearly $3 billion purchase of jet engine parts maker Firth Rixson; and the major commitments to new state-of-the-art aerospace facilities at ATC, Indiana, and Virginia.

At the world’s largest airshow in Farnsborough, England, last week, Alcoa’s Chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfield inked a $1.1 billion deal with United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney (P&W) to supply state-of-the-art critical turbofan components for the P&W PurePower® engines that are used for regional jets and military aircraft.

As part of this deal, Alcoa will include the forging for the first ever aluminum fan blades for jet engines.

The forging was developed for Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower® engines using an advanced aluminum alloy and a proprietary manufacturing process. Also for the PurePower engines, Alcoa is developing a fan blade forging using its most advanced aluminum-lithium alloy. The local breakthroughs at ATC are seen throughout the aviation industry as true materials science breakthroughs, according to Professional Pilot magazine that monitors the industry.

“We’re going where no materials scientist has gone before,” said Kleinfeld. “Combining Alcoa’s proprietary alloys and unique manufacturing processes with Pratt & Whitney’s design, we cracked the code on forging an aluminum fan blade that is lighter and enables better fuel efficiency.”

Through the 10-year deal, Alcoa will deliver not only aluminum fan blade forgings but also a range of other advanced product forms, from blades and vanes to structural castings, he adds.

Meanwhile, it was not the engine contract that caught Wall Street’s interest. Rather it was the $2.85 billion Firth Rixson, Ltd. purchase.

“The earlier purchase of Firth Rixson doubles the Alcoa average engine content in key programs,” Kleinfeld says, calling the deal a “major milestone” in Alcoa’s transformation from its mining and aluminum smelting roots. It will “bring together some of the greatest innovators in jet engine component technology (and) will significantly expand our market leadership and growth potential.”

The aluminum manufacturer’s deal for U.K.-based Firth Rixson Ltd. will boost annual aerospace revenue this year by $800 million, or 20 percent. Further, the acquisition gives the company access to isothermal forging technology that allows for higher temperatures to maximize turbofan power output, drive fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.

In addition to the P&W contract, Alcoa also added that the $100 million state-of-the-art jet engine plant that they are building in LaPorte, which Indiana Governor Mike Pierce calls “the most advanced aerospace facility in the world,” remains on schedule.

The La Porte plant will make nickel-based turbine exhaust cases, compressed air injection inlets, high-pressure compressor stators and exit guide vanes. The factory will make heavy use of state-of-the-art technologies, including robotics and the 3D printing. Alcoa already makes the same components in smaller sizes for business jets and smaller regional commuter aircraft.

Finally, Alcoa is also boosting its ceramic engine part capabilities in Virginia to meet growing demands. To do this, the global leader in lightweight metals engineering and manufacturing will use ATC advanced manufacturing technologies including robotics and digital x-rays and a new process technology called – enhanced equiax (EEQ) casting.

EEQ owes its existence to five years of intense research and development at the Alcoa Power and Propulsion Research Center in Whitehall, Michigan, as well as research and development breakthroughs in exploratory materials research at ATC.

“We are now deploying state-of-the-art technology that will significantly improve the performance of some of the best-selling jet engines in the world,” said Kleinfeld. “This technology and investment further demonstrate how Alcoa is executing on our strategy to aggressively capture demand in the fast-growing aerospace market.”

Frank Sowa

Strategy consultant, writer, business and tech researcher and entrepreneur