GE jet engine plant lands in Batesville

by For the MBJ

Published: June 4,2007

It looks like a warped piece of plastic, or metal, or some combination of both. Its shiny, wavy black face is backed by a bracket with six holes in it.

In almost any junkyard the 18-inch-long, four-pound piece of carbon fiber and epoxy composite would likely be tossed into the discard pile, with no recognizable, salvageable use. But the odd-looking article is a potential boon to Batesville and an integral part of General Electric’s new GEnx (General Electric Next Generation) jet engine.

Several hundred Panola County citizens last week got a look at what will be built in their town with the construction and eventual opening of a 200,000-square-foot GE manufacturing plant. Initial employment of salaried and hourly workers will be approximately 100.

“This is a very big day for Batesville and Panola County. This is the most sophisticated product (GE) makes,” Gov. Haley Barbour declared to a standing ovation. “I remember when companies came to Mississippi looking for strong backs and low wages. Now they’re looking for strong minds and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Seated in the new Batesville Civic Center, the audience listened and looked as Scott Donnelly, GE Aviation president and CEO, held up the unusual piece, which holds the jet engines fan blades in place.

“Today, we spend $1 billion annually in jet propulsion research and development,” said Donnelly, “and our work in composite technology for jet engines is second to none.

“And Batesville is important to this exciting new arena.”

Donnelly noted that the new GEnx engine — which Donnelly called “the largest engine in the world” — is not yet in production, but the company already has orders for more than 860 of the behemoths, primarily for Boeing 747s and the aircraft company’s new 787. The engines produce a whopping 147,000 pounds of thrust.

Reducing weight by developing and employing composite components, which can weigh 30% less than comparable metal parts, is important to increasing efficiency and payloads. Donnelly said the same composite fan blade platform would weigh seven pounds if it was made of metal. The GEnx engine is 400 pounds lighter with composite parts in place of some metal ones.

The new plant, said Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons, will be constructed on a 92-acre tract that GE purchased from owner Will Polk. The parcel is approximately a quarter-mile east of the civic center, right off Mississippi 6 and less than a mile from Interstate 55.

Simmons said the company was looking for a 100-acre site but settled on the reduced acreage. He explained that GE wanted room for eventual expansion.

During a question-and-answer period after the formal ceremony, Donnelly was asked about a local rumor circulating that the plant will actually employ approximately 500. He responded that the 100-employee number is accurate, for now, and that the hiring will begin next year.

Groundbreaking for the building will come in August; the plant will be operational in 2009. The 100 employees should be in place within 18 months of the plant’s completion.

U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker noted that the GE plant follows a pattern being established in North Mississippi. “We’re very much about the business of national defense and national security.”

He enumerated other defense-oriented endeavors in the region, including plants making unmanned aerial (reconnaissance) aircraft, parts for missile defense systems, rocket parts, aircraft launch mechanisms for “the next generation of aircraft carriers” and “the most advanced helicopters in the world.”

Speakers also noted that the GEnx engine would likely have military customers as well as commercial ones.

Simmons said the engine manufacturer is probably going to be looking for employees with two-year and four-year college degrees since the work is highly technical. “All jobs will be announced through the WIN Job Centers.

“We expect some very quick expansions. And we anticipate this being a springboard for other (highly technical) companies.”

Donnelly lauded the work performed at Mississippi State University College of Engineering’s Raspet Laboratory to demonstrate the production of composite components for jet engines.

He said the GEnx engines will sell for $12 million to $13 million each.

General Electric is a publicly traded company, listed as GE on the New York Stock Exchange. Its stock was listed at $37.29 per share at the middle of last week. With headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, GE Aviation employs 38,000 worldwide and reported revenues of $15.6 billion in 2006.

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