The engine for growth


Dr Neil Calder talks to Simon Weeks, chief technology officer about the Aerospace Technology Institute aero engine technology strategy.

Dr Neil Calder talks to Simon Weeks, chief technology officer about the Aerospace Technology Institute’s aero engine technology strategy.

The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) started its industrial research programme in March 2013 and the four years of progress since then have resulted in a steady state project spend of £300 million a year, which is expected to continue out to 2026. The £4 billion total programme is a 50-50 industry and government partnership, of which £1.5 billion has already been committed to 180 projects. The average is £8.5m per project and around half of this investment is in the propulsion sector.

The overall UK aerospace sector strategy, now entitled ’Raising Ambition’, was updated in July 16 and has a set of nine technology domain strategies for propulsion, manufacturing, aerodynamics, etc.

Roughly two-thirds of ATI projects are in the areas of improving fuel efficiency and cost. Cost factors cover areas of design development, making things, and operations. The actions to support this are predominantly led by Rolls-Royce, but there are also global value chain opportunities for the companies who supply into this. ATI is working with stakeholders to develop projects and the opportunities to bring these about with UK supply chain companies.

The intention by 2020 is to demonstrate technology for ultra-high bypass ratio engines. For the Ultrafan engine technology focus, the task is to communicate with companies the opportunity which this new architecture will bring. A typical example of this is the ongoing £14m MAMOTH project developing necessary high-power gearbox technology for geared turbofans in the 100,000lb thrust class.

The second phase of the successful National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (NATEP) scheme is currently in negotiation for UK Government funding, but the intention expressed by Weeks is to continue to strive to develop connections, including new companies from outside the current aerospace supply chain to increase its level of diversity. Funded research is the primary vehicle, but there is also the chance for broader communications through the UK’s Catapult centres for example. Smaller companies find it difficult to invest over the extended timescales necessary to bring new technologies through to realisation. Despite this, there are already 200 SMEs active within the ATI projects, either as significant subcontractors or as funded partners.

The ATI programme is as much about laying down a foundation of technical capability as it is in evolving the raw technology. The ATI sees itself as catalysing and helping to create opportunities. The focus of technology development and exploitation is within the aerospace sector, but the institute is also a powerful force in bringing people together who would not otherwise have done so, or who would not even know each other; so, the process involves a lot of connecting and matchmaking.

Composite fan blades and casings are pointing towards the larger engines with 130inch-plus diameter. The middle size engine market area will be for much smaller fan diameters, but will bring with it greatly increased production volumes which will start to bring in some more automotive production philosophies and practices.

Even with the larger engine rates, around 20 blades pair fan set will drive towards volume production necessity. This highlights the use of digital trends in data capture which draws in more of Industry 4.0 big data techniques and the ATI is guiding this at a sector level. Weeks concludes: “this big digital thing is not unique to aerospace”.

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