Rolls-Royce partnered with Southampton University to introduce an advanced automated design methodology to improve product efficiency and, at the same time, embed a change in design philosophy and coach its mechanical engineers in a new skill-set. Here, Rolls-Royce Engineering Manager for University Research Kate Barnard looks at an example of how this collaboration impacted the business.

Since 2011, the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre (UTC) in Computational Engineering at Southampton – courtesy of funding from Rolls-Royce and other stakeholders – has worked with the company’s combustion specialists to develop ‘Prometheus’, a multidisciplinary combustor design optimisation system.

Rolls-Royce is certainly not short of high-quality mechanical engineers, but the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tools used for the detailed design have not traditionally been suitable for the types of architectural studies engineers perform in the earliest stages of design. This preliminary design is where a lot of the performance and cost gets designed in – or out.

The new geometry-centric software approach can accelerate geometry creation in these preliminary studies and embeds the information and knowledge demanded by the analysis-led design process. “It’s not natural for mechanical engineers accustomed to the ‘point and click’ approach suddenly to write software, while our group at the university chiefly comprises experienced software engineers,” informs Professor Keane. “Any tools we make can, though, only work when you have a big pull from the enduser… in this case Rolls-Royce.

“We took the approach initially with the company’s combustion team, who have to deal with very complex design issues. We began with a relatively blank piece of paper and from that we were able to embed the philosophy and build a very powerful system that brings benefits like consistency, confidence, repeatability, auditability and global alignment.” Rolls-Royce Sub-system Design Lead Fred Witham is a major user of the production-ready Prometheus system, who can already point to several important examples of improved product quality and radically reduced costs. “It’s a powerful tool that helps us standardise and audit our designs,” he says. “By automating many of the routine analysis tasks, engineers can spend more time designing the engine – using their skills and intelligence to explore design improvements.”

In a typical preliminary Computational Fluid Design (CFD) study timeframe of around four months, rather than running a handful of CFD iterations, thousands of air system and hundreds of CFD and preliminary thermal analyses would be run, enabling robust design and reducing the potential for rework.

A redesigned diffuser for the Trent engine, tested at another University Technology Centre in Loughborough, saw Prometheus assess the robustness of the new design, leading to improved performance that could in turn generate savings for our customers through reduced fuel consumption. And elsewhere, a new fuel spray nozzle has been designed using this automated approach, allowing ten-times the number of iterations of a traditional approach.

The University and Rolls-Royce design teams have together attended black-belt teaching events to experience the automated system benefits. “This is all important,” assures Professor Keane, “as training is a key part of the delivery mechanism.”

The evolution in design philosophy represented by Prometheus is a prime example of how focused research delivers quantifiable impact for Rolls-Royce.