Revolving and evolving

Revolving and evolving

In the film industry, there is often talk of the latest reboot of an old classic and it would appear that the same approach is being undertaking by OEMs in the aerospace market. Ed Hill speaks to the Midlands Aerospace Alliance about new engine options. 

With development costs of new passenger aircraft so high, it’s not surprising that the likes of Airbus and Boeing are attracted by options that can provide many of the fuel burn, noise and maintenance cost reductions desired by airline operators and legislators without redesigning the aircraft from the ground up.

The Airbus 320neo (New Engine Option), Boeing 737 Max, and Embraer E2 jets are all examples of prime manufacturers making the most of the latest aero-engine efficiencies bolted onto existing airframe designs. There may be some secondary aerodynamic changes such as adding ‘winglets’ to reduce drag, but essentially most of the performance enhancements come from the new power sources, which are estimated to be able to improve fuel efficiency between 10% and 20%.

Dr Andrew Mair, chief executive of the Midlands Aerospace Alliance comments: “It also enables Airbus and Boeing to introduce new aircraft quickly to counter the perceived threat from the likes of the Bombardier with its C Series, Embraer E jets and others. There is also less capital investment required to develop the projects both for the OEMs and the rest of the supply chain, and finally it enables the OEMs to reach rapid volumes quickly because many of the parts and components for the aircraft are already being made.”

The two primary new engine options for these latest narrow body aircraft are the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbo Fan (GTF) PurePower PW1000G and the CFM (GE/Safran joint venture) LEAP (Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion) engine.

Both power plants have been certified and are now flying on early production or test versions of the next generation Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max (the latter exclusively using the LEAP engine).

However, these engines are needed in large volumes – the single aisle market being by far the biggest percentage of new aircraft sales – and signs that engine production is struggling to keep pace with airframes rolling out of factory hangers are already beginning to show with deliveries of the PurePower Engine delayed by early teething troubles and slower fan blade production than anticipated.

Mair says both engine makers have been making plans to increase production volumes from their supply chains in anticipation for the ramp-up in engine deliveries when they arrive.

“Pratt & Whitney has offered companies long term contracts, including some suppliers in the UK, to make sure they had the production volumes based on their requirements. CFM had similar concerns with their ability to meet the ramp-up demands required for their new engine. They have been searching for second sources to spread the risk from its supply chain which is another response to how to tackle the volume ramp-up question.”

The go to option

Mair says the Midlands aerospace supply chain, with its connections to Rolls-Royce and other tier 1 and tier 2 aero manufacturers, has been seen as an attractive location to find new suppliers.

“Because Rolls-Royce is not involved in the new engine programmes, as had been the case previously with the IAE V2500 engine for the Airbus A320, there is a perception that there may be some spare capacity in the Midlands supply chain.

“One company which has been successful is HS Marston Aerospace (now part of UTC) which has new heat exchanger technology inserted onto the PurePower engine with a long-term outlook to supply the volumes needed.”

Mair believes that until production rates for these engines stabilise there is still potential for UK companies to win work.

Dr Andrew Mair

“Most potential suppliers are on the OEM’s radar, but as volumes increase there may be more subcontract work required further down the supply chain. The important factor about these programmes is that they are high volume in aerospace terms, so the ability to be able to supply those volumes is at a premium. It is a different market for many of our Midlands firms who have been more focused on the large engine programmes developed by Rolls-Royce with their lower volume, higher value engines.”

In recent years, the MAA has been working with its members to help facilitate their participation in these new engine programmes. Through the predecessor to the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (NATEP), which the Alliance originated, it helped to fund the research into the heat exchanger technology now part of the Pratt & Whitney engine programme.

It has also arranged business delegations to Paris to help UK companies make contact with Safran looking to widen its existing CFM supply chain.

Mair says: “Part of our approach is long term as with the technology that comes from the NATEP programme. The other role is arranging business meetings and events, but of course many of our companies are generating business with their own existing networks.”

New introductions

As far as airframe and systems work is concerned, the new twin-engined aircraft means that production continues on a predictably high level for incumbent suppliers, but a downside is that there are less opportunities for new subcontractors to win work.

“There is a lot of continuity for Midlands companies when it comes to the A320 which of course is a more European aircraft, and for which the UK has a large part of the work, but there are not so many new opportunities with the Boeing 737 Max because they are continuing to use a lot of their existing airframe and systems supply chain in the US.”

However, there is some hope that with the recent announcement of a new Boeing manufacturing centre opening in Sheffield there might be some improved opportunities for UK companies for the 737 Max supply chain. Part of the new centre’s work will be to manufacture actuation systems for Boeing’s 737 Max and 777 aircraft. However, Mair believes the majority of new work on the Boeing aircraft is likely to be linked to the LEAP engines.

“It is possible that there could be new UK work related to the 737 Max through that centre, but it’s not clear as yet on what the details of the supply chain will be and the scale of production.”

So, suppliers will be needed for the foreseeable future for these engines, and in the medium-term there could be new opportunities on newer engine programmes. Rolls-Royce is currently working on its own version of a larger geared turbofan (The UltraFan).

“Even with mature technologies there is still a lot of development work to be done and new opportunities for suppliers. In Rolls-Royce’s case the UltraFan is a significant departure from their existing three-shaft engine that began with the RB211. General Electric is also working on higher temperature combustion on their engines to bring benefits.”

The MAA Aero Engine Forum held from 18-20 April is another example of the organisation helping to promote work for UK companies involved in the aero-engine supply chain.

The three-day event at the Birmingham International Convention Centre, organised by the MAA and BCI Aerospace, with the support of Rolls-Royce, Moog and UTC, is intended to help subcontractors get up to speed with the latest supply chain opportunities in aerospace manufacturing.

Mair concludes: “These sorts of events help improve communication between companies down the tiers. Bigger companies tend to focus on their incumbent supply chain, and on operational issues such as quality and cost, and forums like this offer opportunities for new relationships to be formed and for people to plan for the future.”

PurePower pics courtesy Pratt & Whitney


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