“We’re going digital” has been a declaration made by many a business over the past 30 years, particularly those trying to replace reams of paper with computerised archives. In the aerospace industry, the use of such technology has been around for some time longer, although the breadth of usage has grown almost exponentially over the past 10-15 years.
Monitoring the performance of aircraft systems, particularly engines, has clearly been one area in which the aviation industry has exploited the capabilities of information technology, helping to predict when parts and components are likely to need replacement, thus enabling more efficient operations. ‘Big Data’ has been the buzz phrase for all the readings of thousands of parameters downloaded through telemetry. The challenge now is to take all that data and transform it into relevant intelligence which can be assist operations even further.
When it comes to the design phase, the extensive use of virtual reality tools has aided the creation of every part of an aircraft, helping to ensure, for example, that components and modules are in the best places for access when replacements are required.
In the aero engine sector, all the big players are investing considerably in this area. Utilising every aspect of its parent’s business portfolio, GE Aviation has been developing its digital division for some time, both by internal growth and acquisition. Similarly, Pratt & Whitney has also made use of the diversity within United Technologies.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce in is now just over a year into its IntelligentEngine programme, which builds on the concept that products and services are now integral to one another, thanks to the stage to which digital technologies have developed. According to the company, this coming together was first identified when Rolls-Royce introduced its TotalCare programme more than 20 years ago.
At the recent Paris Air Show, the company reported progress in a number of elements within the programme, such the UltraFan engine. This powerplant is designed to be scalable, enabling deployment on widebody or narrowbody aircraft (an area of manufacturing in which Rolls-Royce no longer participates since divesting its shares in the International Aero Engines consortium). Naturally, the fuel efficiency specification of the UltraFan aims to be significantly better than its predecessors, the benchmark in this case being first-generation Trent engines.
The first UltraFan modules have been undergoing testing at ITP Aero in Spain. Rolls-Royce confirmed in Paris that one such engine section, the multi-stage intermediate pressure turbine (IPT) “has completed an aerodynamic test to verify functional characteristics and design methodologies. The successful test results represent a key technology enabler for the IPT, which is designed to run at very high speeds to optimise the new engine architecture”.
Ground tests of the complete engine will start in 2021 at a new facility in Derby, UK, which will be commissioned in 2020. It will be the world’s largest indoor testbed, with an internal area of 7,500 m2.
Chris Cholerton, Rolls-Royce’s president of civil aerospace, remarked, “We are bringing the power of digital to shape everything we do in design, test, production and services. Developments like these are ensuring that we make the IntelligentEngine deliver further benefits for customers.”
So dedicated is Rolls-Royce to delivering those benefits, it took a big decision earlier this year to pull out of the competition to power Boeing’s New Midsize Airplane (NMA) as it believed the timeframe for inclusion did not align with its own for the UltraFan. It was a bold step, but Rolls-Royce clearly believes that when the engine does enter service, the digital approach will deliver double-digit savings.