About to reach its 40th birthday, engine manufacturer CFM International faces one of the bigger changes in its history as it begins to transition between its long-running CFM56 powerplant and the next-generation Leap series.
And with that change – three new engine variants are in development – also comes the introduction of a host of cutting-edge technologies.
But despite the potential for disruption, Jean-Paul Ebanga, president of the Franco-US joint venture, exudes an aura of quiet confidence, both about the Leap programme and the company.
With three engines running at the time of this interview, including the recently powered up Leap-1B, Ebanga says he is "thrilled by the results" so far.
Despite being faced with a "heavy engineering production line" in 2014, which will see it build 20 test engines by year-end, Ebanga feels the Leap programme is in a good place. "To have all this going on, it is really quite an achievement, so we are really quite pleased by the overall results and the overall situation of the programme."
Variants of the Leap will power next-generation single-aisle aircraft from Airbus, Boeing and Comac – a sector of the market that has witnessed unprecedented order levels since the A320neo was launched in 2010.
The entire supply chain faces a massive ramp-up to deal with that huge backlog, and the engine manufacturers – and their suppliers – are no exception.
Ebanga describes CFM's gearing up for the introduction of the new engines as "the most intensive and extensive preparation we have ever done".
Key to Ebanga's confidence is the strength of its current supply chain, which Ebanga describes as "the only supply chain in the world capable of producing 1,500 engines per year".
CFM, says Ebanga, is "leveraging" its experience of that high production rate and the relationship it has with its suppliers to prepare for the arrival of the Leaps.
In addition, its parent companies GE and Snecma, he says, are "building new plants especially for the new technology parts and upgrading existing plants to be able to keep up with the Leap requirements".
It will additionally work with its supplier base to ensure similar levels of upgrades are being made, alongside "stress tests" of those companies, ensuring they can cope with the required higher volumes. "To make sure everything is well set, [we] have a very comprehensive production readiness programme," says Ebanga.
"What we are really focusing on is the ability to do this while transitioning from one programme to the other."
That transition should – as far as it is up to CFM to decide – should happen in around three years, says Ebanga. However, that changeover is complicated by the enduring popularity of the CFM56, which has won a claimed market share of 70% since the beginning of the year. That means any switch from one engine to the other is unlikely to happen overnight.
"It won't be a one-to-zero transition where after three years, production of the CFM56 will be stopped," says Ebanga, with spare part production "equivalent to several hundred engines" driving continued manufacturing for a number of years until "2040 or maybe longer".
"This is why when we talk about transition it is a little bit more complex than it seems to be," he says.
There are some voices that suggest the Leap powerplants – and Pratt & Whitney's geared-fan engines – are little more than a stop-gap, a halfway house even, until a true next-generation technology such as an open rotor design emerges in the 2020s. But Ebanga rejects this view: "This new generation of engines is not some kind of transition engine, it is a really a new generation of engine by itself."
And, he points out, the popularity of the platforms powered by the Leap range – the A320neo, Boeing 737 Max and Comac C919 – means that "Leap is set for quite a long time".
In addition, CFM will continue to add performance upgrades to the Leap engines, also increasing the range's lifespan. "We expect it to last a couple of decades," he says.
Ebanga cites the continuous improvement of the CFM56 over its 30-year life since it entered service in the early 1980s. Engines produced today are vastly more efficient than those at the very beginning of the programme, he points out. "We see the same story on the Leap of two to three decades of very successful commercial operation,” he says.
The introduction of "new cutting-edge technology" on the Leap leads CFM to see it as the "beginning of a new era". And as the engines enter service, and the technology proves itself, "we will expand [its] use and applications within the engine".
"What we have seen so far is really promising and this is the beginning of our plan," he says.
That constant uptake of advanced materials and design is driven by the technology pipelines of both parent companies, and their commitment to "fuel that pipeline with talent and investment", he says.
"They have done that for the past four years, every single year, whether the market was bad or good." That investment is "now paying off" says Ebanga, but he points out that it is a continuous process "rather than taking a snapshot of the Leap and saying – that's it".
But it is not just about spending vast sums on research, but also spending on infrastructure and industrialisation, "investing in the right facilities to be able to put into production all those advanced technologies”, as Ebanga puts it.
But he also points out that simply using technology for its own sake, or to increase CFM's margin, is not its goal. Advanced technology, says Ebanga, is simply a means to an end to improve the price, reliability and efficiency of its engines. "We are really focused on the end result,” he says.
At present CFM faces stiff competition in the segment from Pratt & Whitney and its PW1000G range, but it may also see a new rival later in the next decade in the shape of Rolls-Royce. But with the Leap-1B and -1C being the sole powerplant on the 737 Max and Comac C919 respectively and the -1A the “engine of reference” on the A320neo, Ebanga is untroubled. "It's just normal life, there is nothing to worry about,” he says. “Each time we have faced a new competitor, we came up stronger.”
He points to the latest forecasts that envisage a requirement for around 45,000 narrowbody engines over the next decade. "It is huge, it is twice the quantity we could foresee 20 years ago," he says, noting that "we are very well positioned to grab a good share of this coming market".
And to underline the positive market reaction to the Leap engines, Ebanga points to recent validation from all three airframers, which in 2014, each awarded CFM supplier of the year.
"Being supplier of the year with these three guys in the very same year is the best testimony we could get about how CFM is serving the market,” he says.