Our Engineering is Diverse
Evolution of the industry and the company, European networking, future technologies: this and much more in the in-depth interview with Avio Aero’s Engineering Leader, Giorgio Abrate.
It is said that a combination of creative ability, artistic sensitivity, and analytical skills with technical and scientific vocation is the most sought-after set of skills for modern professional recruiters. Thus, he/she must have been a visionary, who, in 1988, interviewed the brilliant young newly graduated engineer Giorgio Abrate for a Controls Engineer job position within the company that then bore the name of Fiat Aviazione.
“I chose Electrical Engineering because I had a passion for high fidelity: I dreamed of building my own amplifiers. At the end of the course, I graduated with a thesis in bio-engineering and one day, by pure chance, I came across the fantastic world of aviation”. Abrate, as many of his colleagues know, is also a passionate guitarist and a lover of jazz and rock music. But destiny had an exceptional career in store for him: in his first 13 years, he progressed through several roles with increasing levels of responsibility within the FiatAvio Engineering Department.
For a further three years, he led the development of military engine programs as Program Manager and, in 2004, he was appointed General Manager of Business Development & Strategy by the CEO of the company that, in the meantime, had been renamed Avio. He held this role for seven years and focused on advanced technologies and related strategic opportunities for the company. It was in this role that he also led the acquisition of a start-up that would become Avio Aero’s first additive manufacturing site. Right there, in Cameri in 2013, with his new role of Engineering Leader, he welcomed another CEO, David Joyce, who at the time was visiting the Italian facilities of Avio Aero (named as such as it became part of GE Aviation) for the first time.
I have learned that diversity allows an organization to fully realize its potential and that in particular, gender diversity serves to create a “realistic” organization in the sense that it reflects the external reality with its sensitivities, attitudes, dynamics, and competencies. When I attended the Polytechnic, there were only two girls in my class. Today, things have changed and in our Engineering Department, for example, 17% of our colleagues are female. Whilst this unfortunately does not fully reflect the reality of the outside world, things are going in the right direction. The challenge we need to overcome is not only hiring more women, but also valuing them and ensuring that they are increasingly able to access positions of impact and influence within the organization.
"The challenge we need to overcome is not only hiring more women, but also valuing them and ensuring that they are increasingly able to access positions of impact and influence within the organization"
Speaking of changes and transformations, what trajectory do you think Avio Aero is taking if you look back to when you joined what was then Fiat Avio?
It’s simple, really: Avio Aero has become a systems engineering company, where before we dealt with components or at most entire modules of an aircraft engine. We now interact with aircraft manufacturers and are able to manage the entire propulsion system: performance, integration, dynamics, installation, life cycle cost, etc. These skills also improve our traditional work on components and modules, because we have mastered the context. This transformation has involved all business departments, not just engineering. For example, colleagues in sales are able to offer global customers a Power Gearbox, as well as an entire engine.
When have you learned the most and is there one engine program more than any other that has left the biggest mark on your career, and why?
The EJ200 program was a great opportunity for many of us who are, shall we say, young at heart! In my case, right from the beginning of my career, I was in charge of the engine controls of the EJ200 in the test room and then later I coordinated the development of all the engine parts for which we were responsible. Staining your shirt with motor oil trying to figure out why the engine won’t start is a school of life I would recommend to everyone.
From an engineer’s point of view, how has the factory changed and, in particular, the work of engineers in relation to the shop floor?
The change has been profound, especially from a cultural point of view. We’re now all aware that we have one shared goal: to deliver quality products to our customers in a way that is profitable for the company. If a beautiful project cannot be produced or costs too much, it does not hit the target and therefore cannot be called a beautiful project.
Catalyst offered an opportunity to focus on an entire engine system: what does this mean for the company and your team?
Catalyst enabled us to become systems engineers and allowed us to integrate with our European colleagues. The European engineering team has over 2,000 members. With these new credentials, we have access to a new role in Europe. A prime example of this is the European research program Clean Aviation (the name that has replaced Clean Sky). For this program, instead of trying to position ourselves as best we could in relation to other engine manufacturers, we were actively involved in the preparation process and put ourselves forward as the lead in four technology demonstration projects.
The emergency and consequent crisis caused by COVID-19 has brought civil aviation to its knees. What do you think about the recovery and, above all, how do you think the air transport of tomorrow will change?
I think it depends a lot on the impact that the vaccine will have in the coming months, both on the number of infections, but above all on the confidence of potential travelers in the safety of air transport. Experts are talking about a return to 2019 traffic levels only by 2025, but we are all confident of a remarkable recovery of the traffic yet by the end of next year. As an optimist, I’m hopeful that the second half of 2021 will surprise us and challenge us with demand for parts and maybe even new engines that exceeds our production capacity. We’ll see...
Sustainability is a vital condition for the aviation industry. Which technologies do you see as most prominent and next to contribute to decarbonization?
In the past, engine manufacturers have been instrumental in increasing air transport efficiency by delivering 10-15% improvements in each new program. Aircraft manufacturers would then add changes with a lesser impact, such as improvements to wing aerodynamics or weight reductions through the use of new materials. The improvement curve of current turbine engines, based on the Brayton cycle, is becoming saturated and technological discontinuity is necessary. We need to switch to a new curve. This new curve would no longer look at the engine alone, but must heavily involve the aircraft too. In fact, the technologies being considered today will almost all have a very large impact on the architecture of the aircraft.
What scenarios do you see on the horizon?
Let’s list a few:
1) Use of sustainable aviation fuels, also known as SAF, derived from solid biomass, vegetable oils, plants, and synthetic biology, blended in various proportions with kerosene. Currently very expensive due to low volumes, these fuels have the advantage of limited impact on both engine and aircraft architecture and components.
2) Open Rotor configuration (pursued in the recent past and coming to the fore again today). This configuration resembles a turboprop and, although it allows huge increases in engine efficiency, it presents some complexities (such as noise level and installation) to be resolved with the aircraft manufacturer. This configuration should also be combined with innovative operating cycles, with SAF, or even with optimization of power extraction from the two engine drive shafts by means of electric motor generators (a technology known as Micro-hybridization).
3) Distributed propulsion enabled by electrical systems. Here, the turbine engine, in addition to providing thrust, will also power electric generators that transmit energy to the propellers distributed on the aircraft to generate thrust, but also decrease the aerodynamic resistance of the aircraft and therefore increase its efficiency. This is the “blown wing” concept, a technology that is certainly not new, but that can be enhanced by hybrid propulsion.
4) Hydrogen fuel. In this case, the turbo engine burns hydrogen instead of conventional kerosene. The impact on the engine is certainly not negligible, but nothing compared to the impact on the aircraft of having to keep hydrogen in a liquid state using cryogenic systems, and the impact that this technology will have on airports and fuel logistics. It should also be noted that the hydrogen used by aircraft engines - in order to guarantee real sustainability advantages -will have to be produced by means of renewable energies, with a considerable impact on the supply chain that will have to be created ad hoc for this purpose.
5) The option of all-electric propulsion, powered by batteries or by Fuel Cells “recharged” with hydrogen, seems at the moment to be usable only on a limited group of small fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft. This is because of the impact that these systems have on weight, as the size of the aircraft and its thrust requirement increase.
Speaking of Avio Aero’s direct commitment to decarbonization and therefore its membership of Clean Sky, how will this challenge continue at European level?
We have been working together with our university partners for many years. The European Clean Aviation project, entirely focused on air traffic sustainability, will start in 2022. The Clean Aviation proposals, which we delivered in Brussels on November 30 last year, cover all these sustainability issues along with other more traditional, though highly innovative ones. The most important project for which we applied in partnership with Safran and Airbus is the demonstration project for an “Open Rotor” propulsion system for a single-aisle aircraft that will enter service in around 2032. Alongside Leonardo Aircraft, we are also looking into the propulsion system of the turboprop engine of the future, which we think will be hybrid electric. We have also put together a proposal on this topic.
"Empathy, the ability to collaborate, communicate, and dialogue with others while managing one’s own ego are skills that must be invested in during a student’s time at university, just as one invests in the knowledge of heat transfer coefficients or the Laplace transform"
The research network with universities and specialized centers, which started in Italy and has now been extended to Europe, is a feather in the cap of your team. What is your future vision for the network?
Today we have a network of 20 European Universities working with us in 10 technology communities using the same intellectual property management rules, the result of a huge effort based on 30 years of work and networking. Our communities are focused on the priority technologies for us: from aerodynamics to controls, from mechanical systems to additive manufacturing. I imagine a future in which we know how to make more and better use of these incredible intellectual and experimental resources that can make all the difference in competitive terms.
If you had to suggest one thing to a young person who is about to begin their university journey, what would it be?
When I was hired by Fiat 32 years ago, they talked about skills in terms of “knowing, knowing how to do and knowing how to be”. What I have realized in my professional life is that “knowing how to be” is just as important as the other two components of expertise. Empathy, the ability to collaborate, communicate, and dialogue with others while managing one’s own ego are skills that must be invested in during a student’s time at university, just as one invests in the knowledge of heat transfer coefficients or the Laplace transform. I think this holds true for anyone embarking on any university course.