How to Build a Job Engine

Pratt & Whitney labored 20 years to create one new position for one engineer. Hundreds more will follow

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Photograph by Stefan Ruiz for TIME

A partially assembled PurePower engine in Pratt & Whitney's plant in Middletown, Conn.

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More important, it was a can't-miss opportunity, and Bombardier's goal was nothing short of a 50% market share. But to get there, it had to create an entirely new jet, powered by a more efficient engine. Choosing that engine had consequences. "The engine is really a monumental decision," says Bombardier's Robert Dewar, vice president of the CSeries. "Because if you get it wrong, you can't recover from it."

Pratt had come to the same conclusion. "Both Bombardier and Pratt had a focused objective: create an innovative product that lowered operating costs," says Bob Saia, vice president of Pratt's Next Generation Product Family division. A typical new or remodeled engine offered 5% to 7% in fuel benefits and comparable noise reduction. Pratt guessed that double-digit improvements in these categories would be needed to make any real noise in the marketplace and overcome resistance to a new technology.

Not since the arrival of the Boeing 747 in 1970 had there been serious innovation in jet engines. They were loud, and they burned a lot of fuel. The geared turbo engine changed that by putting three innovations together in a new way. The first is the gearbox. It's lightweight, about 300 lb. (140 kg), and could fit in the trunk of your car, but it generates 30,000 horsepower. All jet-engine design has trade-offs among weight, drag, parts and power. "Now I have a lighter engine, so I can put a bigger fan on it," says Alan Epstein, the company's technology chief. A bigger fan, because it moves more air, can run slower. That reduces noise. It also means the engine needs fewer parts to power the turbine. And the engine housing, called the nacelle, doesn't need as much dampening, so it can be made with lighter-weight composite materials.

Each of these innovations alone would reduce fuel burn by about 2%. Combine them, though, and the improvements multiply. It's not incremental; it's monumental — a 16% leap in fuel efficiency, which translates into a $400-per-hour savings on most jets operating today.

Knapp Carney owns a piece of that magic gear: the bearings compartments, which keep the gear shafts in perfect alignment. "I have significant responsibility for a certain set of hardware, and we take the cradle-to-grave philosophy of owning hardware, from the design concept up to physical metal on the floor," she says. The upshot is that jobs keep getting created as the project moves from concept to design to manufacture to maintenance, all requiring constant redesign and revision. "We get basically the baseline schedule and budget," Knapp Carney says. "Then we said, 'What resources do we need? How many designers do we need? How many analysts do we need for the different pieces of hardware?' "

Knapp Carney has already ordered millions of dollars' worth of bearings, and she's about to place orders for castings from Selmet in Oregon. There will be hundreds of suppliers for the engine, ranging from United Technologies' Hamilton Sundstrand division to Sweden's Volvo. Manufacturing isn't a zero-sum game: when one country does well at it, it doesn't mean that others must suffer. There are some 15,000 to 20,000 parts to a jet engine, and given the mission — keeping an airplane filled with humans in the air — it has to operate nearly perfectly during its life span of 30 years.

For employees, the growing market for the new engine means opportunities will keep expanding too. Knapp Carney says she could spend her entire career working on the A320 engine if she chooses. "You can climb as high as you want. You can take on as much work as you want and get exposed to great opportunities at Pratt," she says. "But you can also find your happy place." Knapp Carney is going to be equipped for just about anything. She has an engineering degree from George Washington University and a master's from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is working on an M.B.A. at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.

Exotic New England
The job growth at Pratt won't extend evenly to all employees. Pratt began in East Hartford, which, like a lot of other New England mill towns, developed vast resources in metal and machining beginning in the 19th century. The 21st century has not been kind to such places, requiring Pratt and other industrial survivors to make hard decisions. Pratt has spent $1 billion restructuring, moving some of the work away from its high-cost unionized manufacturing plants in the Northeast to Georgia and overseas to Singapore, Turkey and China. But in many cases, that's allowed it to replace low-end labor with higher-end engineering jobs. "The fact that we've moved some of the manufacturing to lower-cost areas has actually enabled us to make bigger investments in R&D and win new programs and grow the company," says Hess. "It's really counterintuitive."

In New England, Pratt has retained a cadre of the most exquisitely talented and experienced shop hands. In its Middletown assembly plant, they make the exotic turbine blades — a bimetallic blend of titanium and aluminum — that are critical to the GTF. It can take two decades for a worker to acquire the skills needed, which is why some of them earn more than $100,000 in a good year and why those jobs don't move abroad as easily as lower-skilled work. When TIME visited, a group of employees were gathered around a partially assembled engine doing close-up work like orthopedic surgeons around a damaged knee. "You mistorque a bolt, it sets you back months," says Graham Webb, who runs the PurePower program.

As the PurePower engines move into production — the first ones will be delivered to Bombardier in 2013 — the manufacturing work will spread out. Pratt just opened a plant north of Montreal for its Canadian customer. It is also developing engineering capacity in Poland and India.

But moving trucks are on their way to East Hartford, bearing the belongings of new hires: 140 engineering grads will arrive in June. Newbies as well as experienced engineers will keep arriving for months. It's all made possible because of decisions made years ago, because of risks taken and rewarded.

The benefits of getting a long-cycle business like jet engines right are enormous — for the country, the company, the community and the employee. They will pay off for talented people like Knapp Carney. She's been traveling for her job lately, sitting on planes and staring at the engines attached to the wings and thinking that one day she'll see her work hanging there like a piece of industrial art. That's why she got into engineering, she says. "It's jet engines. You don't get more exciting than that."

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