Photograph by Daniel Shea

Pratt & Whitney's Jet-Engine Assembly Line

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    Inspired by auto plants, Pratt & Whitney is embarking on a new way to build jet engines. For decades its hand-built engines were wheeled around the factory floor so that various specialists could work on them. The company has now installed automated assembly lines with ceiling-mounted jigs at its plants in Middletown, Conn., and West Palm Beach, Fla. The setup will help speed production of advanced geared turbofan (GTF) engines that Pratt is selling to power a new generation of jets from Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer, and Mitsubishi.

    The New Way
    Workers will continue to assemble engines by hand. Now, however, the engines will be moved around on jigs mounted to tracks on the plant’s ceiling.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    The Old Way
    Engines such as the V2500 were clamped in place on the factory floor by a platform that retracted like a camera’s iris, securing the machine and allowing technicians to work around it.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    A V2500 engine.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    The jigs are flexible, allowing Pratt employees to position the engines so they can work without stretching and straining.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    Future Tech
    Pratt is using 3D printing to make parts for its GTF engine. One method (pictured) involves shooting a high-power electron beam into titanium powder to create engine brackets, mounts, oil nozzles, and other parts. Such technologies may eventually lower the engine’s weight and operating costs.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    Weight reduction for some 3D printed parts.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    Quality Control
    After high-speed testing at the Connecticut plant, a worker examines the turbine blades of a V2500 engine for defects.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    Taking It Apart
    The Engine Alliance GP7200, a model built by a joint venture with General Electric to power the twin-decked Airbus 380, is too big to fit in a shipping container. Pratt workers must partially disassemble it, then put it back together once it arrives in Europe.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea
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    Number of orders for GTF engines since development began 15 years ago. Despite a malfunction during one test flight, Pratt says the technology is sound. The company plans to have its two plants running at full tilt by early 2015.

    Photograph by Daniel Shea