Taking a page from Silicon Valley, Pratt & Whitney’s year-old GatorWorks division is aiming to accelerate the design and construction of advanced aircraft and missile engines.
“Our scope is all of the new advanced program projects for all of Pratt military engines,” said David Stagney, who leads GatorWorks. “All the new products are coming out of our shop,” including new aircraft engines, upgrades to existing models, and superfast hypersonic engines, Stagney said in an interview on Wednesday.
Pratt & Whitney stood up GatorWorks in early 2018. Now, about 200 or so people are working on some two dozen projects. Based in the swamplands west of Juipter, Florida, its name is both a nod to the many alligators on the factory grounds and a play on Skunk Works, Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs outfit that designed the U-2 spyplane, SR-71 Blackbird, and many other famed military aircraft.
Pratt’s prototyping shop is just the latest effort by a defense company to shake up its corporate culture and meet the Pentagon’s demands for advanced technology, quicker.
“They really wanted us to think differently about the product and technology development processes,” Stagney said.
He said that Matthew Bromberg, the president of Pratt’s military engines division, heard the message from Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper and “a number of other customers that there’s a need for us to be really fast and really innovative to disrupt some of the traditional procurement cycles and technology and product development cycles to figure out how to solve problems in a different way.”
Bromberg’s orders to Stagney: “Cut the cost and lead time of our product and technology development in half.”
GatorWorks operates differently from the rest of Pratt & Whitney’s production.
“We wanted to form small teams that could really try things out and not be afraid to try to break things [and] really learn from actually doing something rather than the traditional approach of extensive amounts of analysis and risk mitigation and planning and risk avoidance,” he said.
One of GatorWorks first projects was building a small engine that could produce 700 pounds of thrust.
“Typically, we would have had a four- to five-year development cycle,” he said. “We would have had...700 to 1,200 requirements that the team would have been given and that pretty much would have defined what that engine was going to look like and how that program was going to go.”
Instead, it set up quarterly sprints, like those used by software companies in the Agile process. (L3 Technologies introduced a similar concept before its merger with Harris, using innovation sprints to speed up its work.) GatorWorks built a prototype of the core of that new engine in a one year.
And in 90 days, it designed, 3D-printed, and tested a fan for a new engine. It’s expected to conduct two additional three-month long sprints to produce a finalized version of that fan. Under traditional development, the effort might have taken two years.
Stagney said the concept starts with a flexible customer. Then “you say, ‘Look, we're going to plan for these multiple iterations. We don't know exactly what the ultimate specification or requirements or performance of this product is going to be, but we jointly know the problem that the warfighter is trying to solve and we can absolutely agree on the mission that this product needs to needs to achieve.’”
Then, he said, Pratt and the customer can agree on a contract “where we can define the first iteration together and define the outcome that we're going to deliver, but give the team enough room to innovate and make some tradeoffs and then incorporate chances to learn and define the second step together as opposed to having this really firm contract and then massive arguments about changes in scope and who's going to pay for the work that has to be done to make the design work or a change in the scope of work.”
Other projects GatorWorks include: Pratt & Whitney’s proposal for new B-52 engines and “significant technology and performance enhancements” for the engines used by the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It’s also looking at new ways to maintain and repair existing military engines. It recently 3D-printed a part for an existing engine that under traditional manufacturing is made up of 99 separate parts.
One of GatorWorks’ projects saved a customer $49 million — 37 percent of planned cost, Stagney said.
“That's requiring the customer to think differently about their terms and conditions about the way that we structure the contract,” he said.
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