GE set to expand research

General Electric said its $52 million center on the University of Dayton campus means something unprecedented for the company and the airplane manufacturing industry.

Instead of waiting for an airplane company to throw a design its way, GE intends to get more involved earlier. This will change the way the company designs, tests, engineers and builds aircraft electrical systems. The idea is to assemble a close consortium of engineers to collaborate throughout the process.

That’s not exactly how it’s done today.

In an exclusive tour Thursday of the facility now in the last phases of construction, the Dayton Daily News got a first look at the cavernous Electrical Power Integrated Systems research and development center, or EPISCenter, off Dayton’s River Park Drive.

It will will host two giant two-story labs — one for large classified military aircraft systems, the other for civilian aircraft systems. The ceilings reach 28 feet. Lab space totals 85,000 square feet, big enough to house a wing from a commercial passenger aircraft. Office space adds another 30,000 square feet.

The aircraft electric systems being tested will be powered by simulated aircraft engines, which drive electric generators aboard the aircraft, putting the systems in “real time” mode.

The center’s primary mission will be designing and testing aircraft electrical systems. At the EPISCenter, electric systems in development will be simulated on computer and built fully to scale. There will be opportunities to develop electric systems for other applications, like vehicles and ocean-going ships, but the main target is aircraft, said Vic Bonneau, president of GE Aviation’s Electric Power Systems business.

Employment at the center will be about 50 by year’s end. It’s expected to grow within five years to around 200 engineers and technicians. Building construction should wrap up June 28. Shortly after, GE will begin moving in staff. Also moving in will be special test equipment valued at $22 million.

Bonneau said that what’s different about the EPISCenter is the overall concept. Bonneau said GE worked with customers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Gulfstream Aerospace to design an innovation-focused campus setting where GE and aircraft company engineering teams can unite under one roof throughout product development.

“Their engineers and our engineers can work together in the lab to develop optimal solutions,” he said. “One of our biggest customers is the Air Force and they have been involved in the construction of this facility, too. They hope to work with us in the future on their programs.”

Airplane companies typically have labs of their own, and they are used to test designs, rather than collaborate on innovative research.

“It’s about establishing innovative teams to come up with new solutions,” Bonneau said. “The industry is moving that way — collaborative design and build of products.”

Major developments that could fall into place soon — and further raise prospects for the EPISCenter — include interest by European aircraft manufacturer Airbus in setting up a manufacturing and training hub in Dayton with the National Composite Center and potential for the Dayton region to be designated a test-flying area for unmaned aerial vehicles.

The construction of the EPISCenter expands on GE’s aviation research and manufacturing cluster in southwest Ohio with 9,000 employees. That includes the Evendale jet engine plant, Beavercreek’s Elano Corp., TDI Tech Development Inc., in Dayton, and GE Aviation Systems in Vandalia, which makes electric power generators and related systems for military and civilian aircraft. There’s also GE Aviation’s jet engine test operation in Peebles, Ohio, among the world’s most advanced jet engine test centers.

The University of Dayton will own the building and grounds and lease it to GE for 15 years, a lease valued at $52 million, said Bonneau. The project was kick-started by a $7.5 million grant from the Ohio Third Frontier Fund.

The cash paid for simulation and modeling equipment in the EPISCenter, Bonneau said.

Derek Busboom, project manager for the new site, said GE is offering a “single solution” for customer needs, rather than a host of suppliers. “What’s in it for the customer is a better product at a better price,” he said. “This is a game-changer.”

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