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Aviation Agility: B. L. Harbert International

The twin plants Harbert is building for GE Aviation in Huntsville will produce super-alloy machined parts for jet engines.

GE Aviation’s two advanced material production plants in Huntsville will employ 300 workers.

GE Aviation’s two advanced material production plants in Huntsville will employ 300 workers.

Birmingham-based B. L. Harbert International is one of the country’s top builders, providing design-build, construction management and general contracting services. The construction company, which produces $1.25 billion in annual revenues, has a number of commercial and industrial specializations, including its growing aviation sector, which began emerging about a decade ago.

Currently Harbert is working on two major GE Aviation material production plants in Huntsville for the next phase of the GE aircraft engine line, says Jeremy Pipkin, Harbert vice president and industrial division manager. The $200 million, design-build project, which broke ground more than a year ago, will be an advanced technology manufacturing operation employing about 300 workers when fully operational. Construction of the first plant was slated to be complete this month.

The sister GE plants will produce revolutionary, light-weight silicon carbide materials for commercial and military applications, including jet engines and land-based gas turbines. “The biggest thing with aviation clients is that they are advanced-technology based and as the technology improves, the requirements may change. It requires a lot of flexibility during construction,” Pipkin says. “We try to keep where they may go with design in mind as we build.”

Harbert’s first aviation project — the Rotary Wing design-build project at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville — broke ground about eight years ago under the auspices of the company’s federal division. That Harbert division has managed a variety of government projects, from U.S. embassies across the world to military and aerospace facilities in the Southeast. “The Rotary Wing project drew upon our industrial and manufacturing expertise and was a good fit for our company,” Pipkin says.

The Rotary Wing Center & Hangar Facility comprises a 126,000-square-foot hangar, administration and shop facility, as well as a 37,500-square-foot headquarters office. The buildings were designed to meet the stringent requirements of the Redstone Test Center for training, maintenance and repair for rotary wing aircraft.

Around the time of the Rotary Wing project, the State of Alabama decided to go after aviation manufacturing facilities planned by the private sector, offering business incentives in hopes of bringing more manufacturing jobs to the state, Pipkin says. “Based on our successful Rotary Wing experience and our recognition of the potential growth in the aviation sector, we decided to pursue more aviation projects,” he says.

Early on in its pursuit of aviation business, Harbert branched out from the military to private companies, initially targeting GE Aviation’s Auburn manufacturing project. The high-tech plant manufactures super-alloy machined parts for jet engines. “We began talking to GE in 2010. The fact that we had our own division able to install the process piping for the facility, as well as our broad experience in industrial work, helped us get the GE project,” Pipkin says.

The full-service builder was able to provide site development, infrastructure and construction of the 315,000-square-foot Auburn facility, with installation of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and process piping. Special requirements for the high-tech facility included a switch gear, back-up power generation system, chillers and cooling towers. “GE is happy with our work, and we appreciate their quality and safety standards,” Pipkins says.  “So far we have signed 10 contracts with them.”

One of the other high-profile GE Aviation projects Harbert has worked on was for GE’s $18.5 million manufacturing facility in Asheville, North Carolina, adjacent to GE’s existing machining plant. The 175,000-square-foot Advanced Composites Manufacturing Facility, which opened in 2014, was GE’s first foray into mass production of its proprietary Ceramic Matrix Composite (CMC). “The project provided another positive working experience, continuing our relationship with GE,” Pipkin says. “Now we are working on an even larger, advanced materials project for GE in Huntsville, which has even more special requirements and an evolving design.”

The first of the two new GE facilities in Huntsville will mass-produce silicon carbide ceramic fiber, and the other will use the fiber to make tape for CMC components. This new GE plant will be only the second large-scale facility in the world able to mass produce silicon carbide ceramic fiber, Pipkin says.

The other large-scale silicon carbide ceramic fiber facility, which GE has an interest in with Japan’s Nippon Carbon and France’s Safran, is located in Japan. “As we have been building the Huntsville project, GE has been fine tuning the ramp up and scaling of the products,” Pipkin says. “They have an R&D facility in Delaware. So we are constantly changing what we’re doing.”

The ceramic tape to be produced in Huntsville will be used by GE Aviation at its CMC manufacturing plant in Asheville. The Asheville facility fabricates CMC shrouds for the revolutionary LEAP engine’s high-pressure turbine section. The LEAP engine, developed by a joint venture of GE and Safran, is the first commercial jet engine to use CMCs in the high-pressure turbine section. “There are thousands of backorders for the new engine, which is expected to provide significant fuel savings,” Pipkin says.

The ability to use CMC in jet engine manufacture is considered a major breakthrough in the advancement of jet propulsion, providing significantly improved fuel economy. As GE Aviation explains in its press release on the project: “With one-third the density of metal alloys, these ultra-lightweight CMCs reduce the overall engine weight.  Further, their high-temperature properties greatly enhance engine performance, durability and fuel economy.”

Harbert’s work is helping poise Alabama to play a major role in the supply chain of GE advanced jet engine production. “GE Aviation is creating a fully integrated supply chain for producing CMC components in large volume, which is unique to the United States. The new factories in Alabama are vital to this strategy,” Sanjay Correa, vice president who leads the industrialization of advanced technologies at GE Aviation, was quoted as saying in the Huntsville groundbreaking press release.

According to the GE press release, the revolutionary materials produced by the Huntsville plant and products made from it will be sold to the U.S. Department of Defense, GE businesses, Safran and other outside customers, subject to U.S. regulations.

In addition to GE Aviation, Harbert has contracted in recent years for major aviation projects with Airbus, Arista and Boeing. Work includes the Boeing Space Systems Launch Office at Redstone Arsenal, facilities at the Airbus manufacturing site in Mobile and Arista’s Bell Helicopter maintenance support center in Enterprise, adjacent to Fort Rucker.

“Aviation work has become a productive specialty for Harbert, and we continue to pursue it as long as there is the demand,” Pipkin says.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood.

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