Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre network

Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre network

This case study originally appeared on page 35 of the NCUB report Growing Value: Business University Collaboration for the 21st Century. The report is part of the Growing Value project, seeking to maximise the economic impact of the UK's research base through university-business collaboration. Read the full report.

A network of Rolls-Royce University Technology Centres (UTCs) lies at the heart of the company’s long-term approach to developing technologies, helping to deliver the company’s vision and to secure competitive advantage.

The global UTC network is part of the company’s integrated approach to research and technology, and works closely with its highly focused strategic research teams, company technology specialists, and business leaders to identify and develop the new technologies required for its broad portfolio of products and services.

The company derives considerable value from this approach. Formalised, long-term relationships with UTCs offer the company much more efficient access to high-quality research, allow the development of deep and long-lasting relationships based on trust, connect the company with the wider academic world, and provide a mechanism for training and developing the next generation of experts.

The UTC model is highly-regarded and widely recognised. It has developed over two decades and is widely regarded as a prime example of an effective relationship between industry and academia. Initially concentrated in the UK – the first were set up at Imperial College and Oxford University in 1990 – today’s international UTC network reflects the company’s increasingly global footprint. There are 19 centres at 14 UK universities, four at German universities and others in Italy, Norway, Sweden, the US and Korea. Further relationships are in development.

“Unlike our major competitors, Rolls-Royce does not have a large corporate research centre. Instead, we have made our selves totally dependent on our University Technology Centres for our future technology. Our global university partners more than rise to this challenge” Ric Parker, Rolls-Royce Director of Research and Technology

Each UTC is led by a senior academic with a global reputation in their field. They are supported by academics, research fellows, research assistants, technicians and a cohort of students undertaking PhDs and other higher degrees. Over 600 people are working in the UTC network at any one time, with over 400 PhD students being supported by Rolls-Royce through the UTC network.

According to Dr Jon Carrotte, Deputy Director of Loughborough’s UTC in Combustion and Aerodynamics:

UTCs facilitate exchanges of people and knowledge

Rolls-Royce offers a number of secondment opportunities to academics and students from UTCs, giving them the opportunity to work inside the company. The company also sends its own employees to work and study within UTCs, and a number of Rolls-Royce engineers have completed PhDs in this way. Staff from both sides have received Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Industrial Fellowships allowing them to work on collaborative projects between science and industry. UTC staff and researchers publish around 400 technical papers annually, either independently or in conjunction with company engineers. Rolls-Royce applies for over 450 patents annually, with between eight and ten per cent of these resulting from our interaction with the UTC network.

Each UTC is ‘owned’ by an internal Rolls-Royce business unit. This is typically the engineering team of a supply chain unit seeking new technology and fresh capability to play a part in new product development. Each UTC addresses a distinct technical discipline, including noise, combustion, performance, aerodynamics, electrical systems, manufacturing, nuclear engineering, and many more. The technologies being developed undergo regular reviews and pass through formal ‘gates’ as they mature. A UTC will generally take development to the third or fourth level of technology readiness (TRL3/4) before a new technology is transferred to the company to conduct validation activity advancing it towards TRL6 through large and expensive rig and demonstrator programmes, at which point it can be utilised as a feature of new product designs.

Funding is provided through rolling five-year contracts, which enable UTC teams to take a long-term, strategic view of how to achieve specified research programme targets, agreed together with Rolls-Royce. Additional funding in support of fundamental and collaborative research may be provided from complementary sources such as the EU and, in the UK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Technology Strategy Board, learned societies and regional agencies.

‘The high-impact nature of applied research is a real boon to teaching. ‘I can use fresh material in my lectures, and in addition welcome visiting professors like Ric Parker, Rolls-Royce Director of Research and Technology, to deliver unique and exciting insights into the technologies students are working on in the UTC – many of which could be in service use around the world in five-ten years time.’

As a consequence of this long-term relationship, universities are in a position to make strategic investments to improve their scientific infrastructure and attract the most talented staff. For example, theHeatTransfer and Aerodynamics UTC at Oxford has recently relocated and re-equipped its Osney Laboratory, incorporating a new turbine research facility, at a cost of around £10 million.

There have been a wide range of successful research collaborations in recent years. One key  area is  materials research. With virtually all current commercial aircraft and much power generation plant using gas turbines, one challenge is to find radically new materials – beyond today’s nickel-based superalloys – that will enable engines to run hotter in order to raise thermal efficiency, cut fuel burn and reduce harmful emissions.

The high-pressure turbine blade is one of the most demanding individual components, as it sits in the hottest part of the engine. Manufactured as a single crystal of nickel alloy to eliminate grain boundaries, they can run in gas streams with temperatures hundreds of degrees hotter than the melting point of the materials from which they are made. This is due to the refined alloys and single-crystal structure, the tough, specially developed coatings and the elaborate cooling labyrinths within the blade’s core. UTCs have contributed significantly to all of these.

For the next generation of materials, the blue-sky vision and focused technical expertise existing within UTCs can generate significant results. The materials academic research team comprises Cambridge University, which drives high-temperature alloy research; Swansea University, specialising in the testing and understanding of mechanical properties and life-cycle capability; and Birmingham University, which undertakes materials process modelling and studies manufacturing issues such as alloy production and joining technologies. Additional capability is drawn from material specialists elsewhere, supported by the Rolls-Royce strategic partnership with the EPSRC launched in 2009.

With long-term funding, along with privileged access to data, tools and people, universities secure continuity and stability as well as the real-world technical challenges so attractive to high-class research staff. In return, Rolls-Royce stays directly connected to cutting-edge academic capabilities, with access to world-class skills and highly motivated staff.

Example: the Trent 900 fan blade development

No fewer than six Rolls-Royce UTCs contributed technologies during the development of the swept fan blade for the Trent 900 that powers the Airbus A380.

‘This would simply not have been possible had the university not had confidence in the continuity of our activity as a UTC,’ Director, Professor Peter Ireland.
  • Birmingham’s Materials UTC set to work characterising material properties. They measure and model resistance through fracture mechanics, enabling designs to be made that control the behaviour of cracks in non-uniform stress fields at elevated temperatures.
  • The Solid Mechanics UTC at Oxford addressed the effects of ‘foreign object damage’ (anything entering the front of the engine, from large birds to runway debris) on the very large fan blade. It developed models to understand and predict material behaviour under high strain-rate conditions, allowing engineers to design the blade to resist failure.  
  • Complementary research into blade integrity was undertaken by Imperial College London. The College focused on unsteady flow modelling, aeroelasticity, bladed-disc vibration with emphasis on non-linear behaviour, mistuning (to avoid resonance) and modal test planning.
  • Research in the Whittle Laboratory in Cambridge developed a range of fan flow models. These were based on complex 3D flow calculations, validated through detailed experimental studies, that enabled a blade design embodying increased efficiency yet still tolerant  to inlet distortion and providing sufficient surge margin for safe off-design operation.
  • Other UTC inputs benefiting the Trent 900 fan blade design came from Southampton, which studied the flow effects on fan noise, introducing an acoustic liner to eliminate the fan tones that generate ‘buzz-saw’ noise; and Nottingham, which specialises in manufacturing issues, particularly fixturing and tooling for complex environments and processes, delivered tooling concepts now used in a more efficient blade production process.

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