Having switched from commercial aviation to power generation, Cole continues to work with gas turbines (and static diesels too), but in radically different market and technological contexts.
First, when comparing the under-wing jet turbine with a land-based unit splined to a generator, a turbine’s not necessarily a turbine. While the parts, fundamental physics and mechanical failure modes are often similar, the actual products aren’t, according to Cole. Compared with generators, aircraft turbines are an order of magnitude more expensive (prices are in seven figures), run at hotter temperatures, contain super-alloy structures and use air for cooling. Because of those differences, the level of inspection, non-destructive testing and repair is generally higher in aviation. Similarly, the level of remote monitoring is far greater on an aircraft engine. In power generation applications, the cost of data collection needs to be balanced against the need for data. And, of course, the systems that each type of turbine interact with are very different technically. “You need to understand the whole ecosystem, just like understanding the customer as a whole,” Cole says.
Speaking of marketing, the range of potential power generation customers and their needs is far wider than commercial aviation, it appears. “When it comes to back-up critical power, what a data centre customer wants is very different to a hospital,” she adds. Other customers, some of whom are looking for critical and continuous power, include farmers, utility customers and mines.
It’s a challenge she relishes. “I actually love getting out with customers. I am an engineer at heart, and I love getting into the products. Going to those factory sites and hearing those generators run, it’s like being a kid in a sweet shop.” She adds that she has been fascinated to learn what the technology does, and equally the customer’s business model - how they are measured by their investors.
One big driver in the market right now is the pressure to decarbonise. Most of the Finning turbines can burn up to 20-25% hydrogen (with methane) for little or no modification, Cole claims. Other projects at Caterpillar in Europe have experience operating 80% blends, and a current programme is trialling 100% hydrogen blends in the US.
Biogas feedstocks are also possible, but its generally more corrosive nature has maintenance implications. “The issue is the quality of the biogas and understanding that.” Less radical options include fitment of exhaust aftertreatment or using diesel alternatives such as HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil, which must meet the Caterpillar fuel spec to be approved for use).
She says: “For alternative fuels you have to understand how changes will impact things like maintenance costs and reliability and understand the output. It’s no different to commercial aviation. Alternative fuels such as HVO have been tested to understand the impacts on the machinery: does it impact seals, do you have to change filters more often, are there increased levels of microbodies in the fuel, does it have more corrosive impact. As you change the fuel, we put processes in place to monitor the changes and understand the impacts, so you don’t get to a point of failure.”
Reflecting on the environmental pressures, she adds: “It’s a reality; things are changing, so we’ve got to evolve and change too.”
The advanced preventative maintenance programmes developed by the aircraft engine manufacturers have become famous in industry. Cole describes how it worked at GE: “We found while the aircraft operates in different locations constantly, its home base has a big impact on the maintenance cost. Whether that’s the temperature, or environment that it operates in, or the particles in the air. The sand and dust particles are different by location as are the levels of pollution; they have a huge impact on maintenance cost. This drove the requirement in aviation to have a very detailed understanding of how the environment affects the turbomachinery. That allowed a far more tailored maintenance plan to be put in place. We were proactively removing an engine before it had a failure; not too soon or too late, to maximise the useful life of an individual engine.”
At the same time, similar maintenance packages are now available in power generation, and are becoming as popular. Cole shares the annual renewal percentage of Finning’s own maintenance contracts, which exceed 90%.
And while of course there is a serious safety implication for the reliability of an aircraft turbine, some of the power generation customers treat uptime very seriously, particularly those bound by financial penalties to support the electricity grid with gas turbines – which unlike some other large-scale generation sources, can spin up very quickly. “What they care about is that it starts when they press that button.”
Another similarity between both sectors is a reliance on skills development through apprenticeships. Cole herself started as a mechanical engineering apprentice at GE, working in an engine overhaul shop stripping and building up engines.
She recalls: “It’s three years of intense training; you learn from the best in the shop. The safety and criticality of what you do is drummed into you during those three years. It’s a successful model. Finning also does the same. We have apprentices in power and in services, and I think it’s fundamental to the business. It creates that constant pipeline of talent.” In 2021, Finning accepted 16 apprentices for its in-house, four-year qualifications: service engineer technician and maintenance operations engineer technician, plus IT and finance apprenticeships.
A recent innovation is a mechelec apprenticeship, first launched in Ireland. “Normally you would have mechanical and electrical apprentices, but we’re doing both,” she says.
Cole continued to develop herself and her career at GE, but a few years after qualifying left the workshop and moved into more commercial roles in engine overhaul. “I loved being on the engines and being the tester and problem-solving, but I knew I didn’t want to do that forever; I wanted to get closer to customers. Then I went into a role where I could leverage the knowledge on how the shop works and use it to support the customer contracts.”
During that time, she began a part-time mechanical engineering degree in Cardiff – funded by GE. Driven by greater interest in business, she then continued her education with an MBA while working as a programme manager. Following a role leading a GE PCB manufacturing line, she progressed into service sales based in London, and ended up as regional director of commercial field service.
But whether it’s for aeroplanes, backup diesels or continuous-fired gas turbines, the customer comes first, she concludes. “The technology is just a tool to fulfil the customer solution.”
BOX: Hot cakes
A new Caterpillar range of standby diesel generators whose power capacity rages from 33-220kVa (not pictured) was launched earlier this year. Key selling points, says Cole, are their compact footprint and versatility. “With the shipping times that we have seen this year, we can’t get them quick enough.”