LEAP: Cristina Seda-Hoelle turns up the volume

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Few people in the aerospace-manufacturing industry have roles as vital as Cristina Seda-Hoelle’s is to GE Aviation and its CFM International 50-50 joint venture with France’s Safran Aircraft Engines.

Having delivered more than 30,000 CFM56s and having sold 33,190 by 30 September, CFM is concentrating on making sure the newly developed successor to the legendary CFM56 – which has set every sales and production record for a commercial-aircraft turbofan engine – will be just as successful.

This is no easy task. Together, this year GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines will produce more than 1,700 CFM engines, more commercial-aircraft jet engines than any manufacturer has ever produced in a 12-month period. (CFM itself holds the existing record, achieved in 2015.) While some 1,600 of CFM’s 2016-production engines will be CFM56s, about 100 will be examples of the CFM56’s successor, the LEAP engine.

Although the LEAP only entered service a few months ago, on the A320neo, CFM has already garnered firm orders and other commitments for 11,500 LEAP engines. It thinks LEAP sales eventually will top the final orderbook total for the CFM56, which itself could surpass 35,000 engines.

The CFM LEAP-1A made its first flight on an A320neo on an Airbus flight-test aircraft on May 19, 2015. Image:

The CFM LEAP-1A made its first flight on an A320neo flight-test aircraft on May 19, 2015. Image: Airbus

To service the massive demand for LEAP engines, CFM has embarked on a production ramp-up of a scale unprecedented in the aerospace industry. By 2020 CFM’s production balance will have changed drastically. CFM will be producing more than 2,000 engines annually, at least 300 more than now, but 2,000 or more will be LEAP powerplants – LEAP-1As for A320neo-family jets, LEAP-1Bs for Boeing 737 MAX aircraft and LEAP-1Cs (internally identical to LEAP-1As) for China’s Comac C919.

“CFM delivered the first CFM56 in 1982 and it took until 1994 for it to deliver the first 5,000 engines. We will do that in four years with the LEAP engine,” says CFM International director of strategic communications Jamie Jewell.

The JV’s production arrangements call for GE Aviation to build every CFM engine high-pressure module – together, the “engine core” – and for Safran Aircraft Engines to build every CFM low-pressure module, including the fan. Additionally, each partner performs final assembly of half of all CFM engines built.

At present this means GE Aviation is assembling all LEAP-1Bs, while Safran Aircraft Engines is assembling all LEAP-1As and most LEAP-1Cs. As GE Aviation’s LEAP manufacturing program director, Seda-Hoelle’s job is to ensure GE Aviation meets all its LEAP production targets.

“I take great pride in the responsibility, but as you can imagine it is a great responsibility,” she says. “The ramp is daunting and the impact of the engine on the [GE Aviation] business is huge. It’s something I’m very respectful of. Every day I ask, am I doing everything I can to help the customer?”

A GE employee throughout her (to date) 20-year career, who joined GE Aviation 13 years ago, Seda-Hoelle has held a variety of executive roles within GE Aviation in reaching her current position. Before being appointed GE Aviation’s manufacturing program director for both the CFM56 and the LEAP programs three years ago, a role which within a year was split into two separate jobs as the LEAP program assumed ever-greater significance, she ran the company’s massive engine-overhaul facility in Strother, Kansas, where the majority of all CFM56 overhauls are performed.

Cristina (right) and a GE field service engineer who is working in Seattle on the LEAP program. Image:

Cristina (right) and a GE field service engineer who is working in Seattle on the LEAP program.

Now Seda-Hoelle leads a team of 18 “problem-solvers”, up from four team-members three years ago as the LEAP program has taken off. Her team interfaces with GE Aviation’s engineering-design, supply-chain and customer-support units to ensure LEAP production stays on its planned near-exponential growth curve from now to 2020 and LEAP customers’ needs are met.

“We’re constantly focusing on reducing the risk of the program,” so it runs smoothly, says Seda-Hoelle. “We’re constantly in a team-type environment. I’m driven by working on teams [and] working with customers is where my passion comes into play.”

She adds: “The way we have developed and manufactured the LEAP is very different to other GE Aviation manufacturing programs. With LEAP, there’s a whole structure and operating rhythm in place tied to the ramp.”

This includes developing an innovative ‘Run at Rate’ exercise, run by Seda-Hoelle annually. This focuses on critical LEAP parts that could produce LEAP-production bottlenecks if they aren’t available where, when and in the quantities required. The exercise requires GE Aviation in a given year to demonstrate it can produce those parts at the following year’s higher rate, as the LEAP-production ramp accelerates.

Each fan blade in a CFM LEAP engine contains seven miles of carbon fiber filaments, woven into a very complex, multi-layered pattern, and each blade is so strong that an entire Airbus A350 XWB could be hung from the blade without it breaking. Image: CFM International

‘Run at Rate’, now in its second year, focuses on different parts each year. Where in 2015 GE Aviation focused on making in-house-produced parts at the third-quarter 2016 rate, this year the exercise has brought in suppliers to demonstrate they can produce their parts now at the third-quarter 2017 rate.

This is “because 70-80 percent of the engine is outsourced”, says Seda-Hoelle. To ensure nothing prevents CFM from reaching its planned eventual 2,200-LEAP annual production rate, “We also are dual-sourcing 80 percent-plus of the engine,” a “very different” production strategy than that for the CFM56. “That brings its own complexity: as we make design changes and refine the engine, it brings supply-chain considerations. A lot of what the team is doing this year is managing change.”

Mother to two young sons (who she would “be happy” to see working in aviation if when grown they want to do so), Seda-Hoelle thinks “it is really important to see women in jobs who are mothers. It does create some challenges: I have to be super-efficient with my time because I want to see [my sons] grow up and spend time with them. So I’m not one to sit around and chat” after work.

She cites three people and one support group as being important influences on her career and her ability to do her job fully. First is her father, who came to the mainland USA from Puerto Rico when young (and speaking indifferent English) and who Seda-Hoelle sees as her personal role-model. “My dad has always been the rock of our family and he showed me how you can do things for yourself.”

Second is Denise Biocca, formerly an executive in GE Aviation but now a human resources leader at the parent GE level. Biocca was assigned as a mentor to Seda-Hoelle, who says she made a poor initial decision when entering GE Aviation in opting to go into finance but soon took Biocca’s advice to move into production instead.

Biocca “started to really coach and guide me and sponsored me in the GE Executive Sponsorship Program,” says Seda-Hoelle. “I got the opportunity to go into the Cincinnati repair shop as a business leader and that’s where the light bulb went off and I found my passion” as a production person. “She has continued to sponsor me and challenge me to be the best I can be. I’ve always appreciated her influence.”

Seda-Hoelle has “a few female peers as a support group within GE Aviation,” working in roles within the GE90 and GE9X programs similar to hers. Each woman communicates with her peers informally, Seda-Hoelle seeing as particularly valuable the mutual support they provide in commiserating when, for instance, one texts, ‘I’ve had a bad day’. “It’s very valuable in helping you keep your chin up on those days.”

She is paying these debts forward by serving as co-leader of GE’s Women’s Network, an official affinity group within the company which aims to promote and retain women as employees and which holds more than 100 GE women’s events each year.

Seda-Hoelle also credits her husband Stuart Hoelle, an engineer in GE Aviation’s military business, as being “hugely important” to her success. In her role she has to travel a lot, but Hoelle’s job offers a more stable schedule and more flexibility in caring for their sons. “He is definitely a very involved husband and father … and he is great with the kids. It gives me peace of mind when I travel that they’re OK.”

As regards women in aviation, “We’re still the minority in the room. I just want to encourage women to stay in the industry, enjoy the industry and bring other women into the industry.” The more LEAP engines GE Aviation makes and sells, the more that might happen.

The LEAP-1B engine performed its first flight on GE Aviation's flight-test Boeing 747-200 on April 29, 2015. Image:

The LEAP-1B engine performed its first flight on GE Aviation’s flight-test Boeing 747-200 on April 29, 2015. Image: CFM International

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