By Colleen Carow and Melissa Gerber
Researchers in Ohio University's Russ College of Engineering and Technology are helping an industry giant determine how to build jet engines more economically.
As part of a $2 million overall contract with General Electric Aviation, Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) Professor and Department Chair Robert Judd and Associate Professor Dale Masel have been developing cost-estimation methods for jet engine components for GE for the past eight years. GE uses the methods to design engines that are less expensive to manufacture.
According to Masel, one of the challenges is that costs need to be estimated early in the design phase of a particular engine part. "If cost is only considered at the end of the design process, decisions will have been made that can't be undone," he said.
Judd points out another challenge. "Only a limited amount of information about a part is available early on, and the estimate must be made with this information," he noted.
The largest hurdle to greater usage of the so-called bottoms-up cost estimation method is the number of attributes required to generate a cost estimate. Identifying those attributes can be time-consuming. An even greater difficulty is the fact that the attributes required may not even be known early in the design process -- and by the time they are, irreversible design decisions may already have been made.
Working in a Stocker Center lab, the professors and Russ College graduate students first examine part drawings. Next, they identify dimensions and other attributes that describe the part's geometry and other features. Finally, they develop models to estimate the time and materials required to manufacture the part. Throughout the process, they interview GE engineers about the manufacturing process and materials used.
"Analysis with these tools gives management the information it needs, in very early development phases of a project, regarding whether or not a successful business case exists," said Will Richer, a team leader for GE Aviation. "(We have) worked very closely with OU over the past eight years (and) the accuracy of our cost estimating tools has improved dramatically over that time."
When technology changes, so does the work. GE continually sends the team updated data about products, designs and costs. "As we learn, we make revisions," Masel said. They also get more help. Last year, a third faculty member, ISE Associate Professor Dušan Šormaz, joined Judd and Masel in the work.
The timing of the additional help was important because GE recently expanded Ohio University's role into the company's gas turbine manufacturing process and is exploring the possibility of further expansion.
"They liked what we did so much that they extended the cost estimation project to GE Energy," Judd said. "Even though gas turbines are designed differently from jet engines, the manufacturing processes are similar, so cost-estimation methods can be applied in the same way."
The interdisciplinary endeavor has involved faculty and students from electrical, industrial and systems, and mechanical engineering. Since the project began, six Russ College faculty and 17 graduate students have participated.
John Dowler, a recent graduate of the industrial and systems engineering master's program, was among those recruited for the project.
"When he began, he was brand new to the field of cost estimation and now other students on the team turn to him with questions," Masel said. "With the expansion of the project into energy turbines, it's been really valuable to have someone with his experience to help train the new students."
Dowler said he benefited both professionally and personally. "On the technical side, I'll take away an expanded knowledge of manufacturing processes, cost estimation practices and industrial engineering principles. On the personal side, I've learned the dynamics of an office environment and the inner workings of a Fortune 500 company and have formed many friendships," Dowler said.
The experience shaped the graduate school goals of another student, Bill Young. Judd encouraged Young to pursue a master's degree in electrical engineering, the field of his undergraduate degree, but to gain industrial and systems engineering experience through the project.
"Working for the GE project has significantly changed my life as well as my future plans," Young said. "I am now pursuing a doctorate in integrated engineering, which was unfathomable before the GE project."
Faculty members are working with GE engineers to identify even more applications of the methodology and issues that can be addressed in 2009 and beyond.
Updated Sept. 30, 2008, at 3:10 p.m. with a more accurate photograph caption.