Rolls-Royce University Technology Centres: delivering the technology and tools for aerospace excellence

Rolls-Royce University Technology Centres: delivering the technology and tools for aerospace excellence

The Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre (UTC) model of academic partnership has helped the company bring innovative new technologies to market.

This case study orginally appeared on page 10 of the State of the Relationship 2014. The report outlines the state of university-business collaboration in the UK, featuring expert views and over forty case studies. Read the full report.

Almost 30 years ago, Rolls-Royce began formalising its key university partnerships, concentrating effort with leading groups of academics, and committing to long-standing relationships that would help deliver world-class technology, tools, processes and skills. This became known as the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre (UTC) network. The first two universities to join in 1990 were Oxford and Imperial College London, partnerships that remain strong to this day. Today, this network has expanded to include universities from around the world in Europe, North America, and Asia.

This global network allows Rolls-Royce to work closely with an array of talented people, bringing academics, researchers, and students together with the company’s own senior engineers through a combination of regular dialogue, secondment, and shared challenges. It is an approach that has brought advantages for all parties, providing stability, engendering trust, and giving access to a wider scope of expertise and experience than might otherwise be possible. Evidence of its success can be seen in many of the Rolls-Royce products in use today. For example, the highly efficient widechord fan blade, seen at the front of the Trent 900, drew on technology developed in partnership with at least six different UTCs, covering disciplines as diverse as material properties, manufacturing capability, aerodynamic design and noise modelling.

Of course, committing to a long-term partnership is not without risk, and both the company and the university devote effort to ensuring an alignment of goals and aspirations. Quality of research remains high through the dedication of individuals who continually challenge each relationship.

As the network grows, synergies between different groups become more apparent. Just one example is the approach taken to develop future high temperature alloys. An individual turbine blade in a modern engine endures a centrifugal load equivalent to hanging a double-decker bus at its end, whilst operating in temperatures some 200°C above the alloy melting point. This requires an understanding of the latest technology to model and cool the blade, coupled with knowledge of alloy behaviour and the manufacturing processes required to make it usable. Continuous material development will be a requisite moving forward.

As a result, Rolls-Royce committed to working with the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to help train the highly qualified materials specialists required by the aerospace industry, and to supporting the leading-edge research required for the UK to remain competitive.

Originally involving the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, and Swansea, this integrated programme of materials research and training now includes other universities, several supply chain companies, and has launched over one hundred new PhD research studentships. Patents have been filed from the research, and many of the students and researchers have gone on to take up employment with Rolls-Royce and other organisations within the supply chain, or to remain in university research - thus taking on the challenge of leading the next generation of research. 

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