While celebrating its 100th anniversary, Continental looks to the future

Teledyne Continental Motors is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, using that milestone to unveil its ideas for the future of aircraft engines and, more important, how it is turning those ideas into products and services.

A major part of TCM’s plan is called the Alpha System, which ranges throughout the company from manufacturing to marketing to after-market services. The Alpha Program started with a $3 million facility upgrade that includes a growing number of high-precision, computer-controlled machine tools, said TCM President Bryan Lewis. Its “precision manufacturing” capability is being applied not only to products but to maintenance and “more personalized service,” he explained. “It’s a lot more than just a repackaging.”

Offering as an example the shop floor changes taking place, Lewis pointed out that two CNC machine tools now do the work of 15 machines formerly used to manufacture piston rods. “We’re moving toward all CNC,” he said.

Having been through a crankshaft crisis several years ago, Continental now places great emphasis on metallurgy and testing. While crankshafts still are forged by an outside contractor and finished in house, each is tested when it arrives at Continental’s Mobile, Ala., plant. An extra piece of metal on each shaft is cut off, its grain structure examined and its breaking force determined. Most rejects are due to heat processes that do not meet TCM specifications, said John Oakley, senior vice president for manufacturing.

The engines are assembled in “cells” where four-person teams take a table full of parts and turn it into an engine, then it goes to another area to be run and thoroughly checked out before being packed up and shipped to a customer.

The evolving PowerLink FADEC system is a major part of TCM’s wide-scale improvement program.

“The data (it collects) may be more important than the engine control,” Continental Motors’ Chief Technology Officer John Barton told a group of reporters during a press tour on June 20. He was talking about the diagnostic data that the new Power Line FADEC controls collect. “The time is coming when the airplane can talk to the (Continental) plant, where we can ‘watch’ it run” and provide service advice based on the information, he said. He believes that the system may be able to extend time between overhauls. Tim Owens, director of systems engineering, went farther. “On-condition maintenance may become possible,” he said.

The FADEC system itself, including its engine control, data display, diagnostic interface, control panel and sensor suite, already has a mean time between failures of 9,100 hours, said Steve Smith, who has been in charge of the system’s development. Whether its optimized combustion, pulsed fuel injection and other advanced features can extend engine TBO that far is something he would not speculate on, but he predicted that improvement in TBO almost certainly will be achieved.

Terry Horton, who manages the company’s TCMLink customer service system, pointed out the value of data in providing usable information to airplane owners and FBOs. Trend analysis leads to improved troubleshooting and education of owners about what’s going on inside their engines. “Alpha System personalizes all this,” he said.

Somewhat akin to what sophisticated jet aircraft already do, the ability to send data to the factory isn’t far off for a Cirrus, Liberty, Adam 500, Columbia, Diamond or any other 21st Century airplane utilizing Continental’s FADEC, Barton told the group. The control is STCd for some Lycoming engines as well as Continental’s own.

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