FME Through the Years

FME Through the Years

The April 2015 issue of (mt) focuses on international collaboration. One of the MT Notes articles, “Power Plant Partnerships,” beginning on page 33 of the issue, explores how Fairbanks Morse Engine (FME) works with its international licensors. Here, Paul Roden, vice president for Washington operations at FME, offers a brief history of the engines and projects that led to the company’s current activities and offerings.

The roots of FME go back nearly 200 years, when the Fairbanks brothers, Thaddeus and Erastus, built an iron foundry in St. Johnsbury, VT in 1823. With Thaddeus as the inventor and Erastus as the businessman, they began their business with two products: a plow and a stove. Success came when Thaddeus invented an innovative means of weighing farm products using mechanical levers. The new business of E&T Fairbanks Scale Company grew rapidly as a result of the popularity of their accurate and reliable scales. By 1860, the brothers experienced success with international sales and employed more than 1,000 people.


One of those employees was a young man named Charles Hosmer Morse. Morse opened a branch of the business known as Fairbanks, Morse and Company, which provided military equipment during the Civil War. The Fairbanks, Morse and Company’s manufacturing capabilities were also well placed in rebuilding Chicago following the Great Fire of 1871.


Following his business success at the young age of 38, Morse sought to further expand his manufacturing capabilities by opening a plant in Beloit, WI. In 1875, Beloit had all the factors that would contribute to a successful manufacturing center: rail lines, natural resources, a powerful river, Beloit College, and an influx to Wisconsin of immigrant workers that would establish what became known as the Midwest work ethic.


Product expansion

The 1880s saw Morse expand his Beloit business into the manufacture of windmills and steam engines, and 1893 marked his first internal combustion engine made in Beloit. He immediately recognized the value of this machine when he first saw it at an international exposition held in Chicago, and later that year he hired an inventor, John Charter. The gas engine of those days was not a reliable machine due to problems with the ignition; however, it was Charter who invented the electrical spark ignition, and associated timing mechanism, that made this engine popular. The success of the Fairbanks-Charter gasoline engine, later to be branded Fairbanks-Morse, shifted the focus in Beloit away from steam and wind, and led to a long history of manufacturing internal combustion engines.


The start of the Great Depression brought challenging times for all U.S. businesses. However, Fairbanks Morse stayed in business by offering products such as refrigerators, washing machines and radios, and more importantly, by having a new partnership with the U.S. government. Despite the economic hardships of the time, Fairbanks Morse did not abandon their product development initiatives, but instead invested heavily in new diesel engine technology out of Germany. In the 1930s, Fairbanks Morse hired a team of European engineers to augment their engineering department in Beloit, and developed a revolutionary opposed-piston (OP) two-stroke engine. Although aiming this product towards the locomotive market, Fairbanks Morse found interest from the United States Navy for use in its expanding submarine fleet.


The narrow and powerful engine proved well suited to submarine use, which started a long history of navy/Fairbanks Morse partnerships, and one that saw the navy invest heavily in OPs. As the U.S. entered World War Two, the navy saw an increased need for manufacturing capability, and invested $16 million (in 1940 dollars, which would be approximately $150 million today) in Fairbanks Morse’s industrial capability. The navy additionally funded a secret research project at Beloit of a 4-crankshaft, 40-cylinder, 4,000-hp, 1500-rpm engine. This engine was never mass produced; however, as a result of increased orders to power the navy’s World War Two fleet, the workforce at Fairbanks Morse grew to more than 7,000 employees.


As manufacturing of the OP 38D8 1/8 engine expanded for naval warships, so too did it expand for the locomotive industry, which served Fairbanks Morse well following the post-war downturn. The 1930s and 1940s was a period of change for the locomotive industry, as engines shifted from steam towards the more favorable diesel technology. The OP design was popular with the railroads. The company expanded production capabilities for the railroads in the 1950s, to include 1,500 locomotive trains built in Beloit by Fairbanks Morse. Although building such popular locomotives as the “Train Master” and the “Speed Merchant,” competition from the likes of General Motors and the American Locomotive Company became too difficult, and Fairbanks Morse left the industry in the late 1950s.


The use of OP engines in the marine market continued, primarily in what today would commonly be called workboats (that is, commercial tugs and fishing craft), but also in the United States Coast Guard’s innovative combined diesel or gas turbine plant on its high-endurance 378 ft. cutters. In addition, Fairbanks Morse was successful in pursuing sales of the OP for power generation utilities. This eventually led to the need for a larger, more powerful model, which Fairbanks Morse design engineers were eager to develop.


Turbulent times

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a time of turbulence for Fairbanks Morse due to a hostile takeover that ended the Morse family ownership of the Fairbanks Morse company. This in turn led to a corporate reorganization in 1963 that resulted in Colt Firearms taking over the Fairbanks Morse operations. The new company came to be known as Colt Industries, and the Beloit plant became the Fairbanks Morse Division of Colt Industries. The turmoil and downsizing within the company, however, did not yet lead to a reduction in research and development. In fact, thanks to the investments of Colt Industries, Fairbanks Morse established a new state-of-the-art research and development center in the early 1960s, which housed the world’s top leaders in diesel engine design. Their objective at the time was to design a new high-powered engine for both marine and power generation applications—an engine unheard of at the time, with a capability of generating 750 kW per cylinder at 400 rpm. The advantages of the OP engine (for example, quick startup at full-load capability, high power density, and durability) and the expertise in this technology at Fairbanks Morse made the two-stroke engine an obvious choice for further development. The new product became known at the 38A20, which experienced high demand even before engine testing was completed. Due to the rushing of this product to market, the engine experienced technical problems that led the company to realize that the 38A20 would not be a reliable product. As a result, in 1968, Fairbanks Morse pursued licensed products as a means of delivering on the unmet promises of the 38A20.


Fairbanks Morse needed to move quickly with a licensed product in order to meet the demand that the 38A20 had generated; however, no engine existed on the market that offered the power of the 38A20 in such a small space. Market research soon led the FME team to SEMT (Societe d’Etudes de Machines Thermiques)-Pielstick, a proven and well-regarded French diesel engine manufacturer. SEMT-Pielstick operated worldwide sales through licensing agreements, and they welcomed the idea of having a North American licensee. The resulting licensed engines that were built in the U.S. became known as “Colt-Pielstick” engines, which proved to be successful in maritime operations. FME soon invested in shock qualifying these engines for use in U.S. military surface combatants.


Aside from being favored for the nuclear industry due to its reliability and quick start capability, the OP could be operated on alternate fuels such as natural gas, methane, and even fish parts/oil (for use at U.S. fisheries). As a result, engine sales flourished in the 1970s, which led Fairbanks Morse to become even more focused on the sale of licensed products into the government marine segment, where highly specified engines were required, and where few other engine manufacturers were willing to venture.


During the early 1990s, FME collaborated with German engine manufacturer MAN Diesel and Turbo on the development of dual-fuel capabilities in their medium-speed diesel engines. Based on this collaboration, MAN and FME entered into a license agreement in 1995 for medium-speed diesel engines for the military market. Under this license agreement, FME manufactured and sold engines and parts for the navy’s dry cargo ship known as T-AKE (MAN 48/60 medium speed diesel engines) and later the mobile landing platform known as MLP (also MAN 48/60s).


Because FME had already made the necessary investment to build large medium-speed diesels for the Military Sealift Command (Colt-Pielstick PC 4.2 for T-AO and fast sealift), the expansion to large medium-speed MAN licensed products for T-AKE was an easy transition. This resulted in FME manufacturing and testing the largest medium-speed diesel engines in all of North and South America, a capability that benefited both FME and U.S. industrial capability. This capability became especially beneficial for the navy’s nuclear programs that were classified as “no foreign nationals.” Additionally, the navy’s LSD-41 (1981) and T-AO (1982) programs each required U.S. domestic manufacture requirements as a means of promoting the manufacturing capability of the U.S. industrial base, which FME met.