Rolls-Royce dominates life in Derby, and it’s impossible not to notice. As you drive around the city, the company’s distinctive blue logo is forever coming into sight, cropping up on the walls of traditional red-bricked buildings and on a growing number of modern manufacturing facilities. The company has a huge footprint in the city and is far and away the biggest source of employment in the wider region.
It’s from Derby that Colin Smith, director of engineering and technology, oversees the company’s global army of engineers – numbering 11,000 in total. Smith joined Rolls-Royce as an undergraduate apprentice in 1974, and has progressed steadily through the ranks, holding roles such as chief engineer on helicopters and subsequently on the Trent 700 and Trent 500 civil engine programmes. Although he now occupies an elevated position, with a seat on the main board, it’s that hands-on background that gives him a true appreciation of the value of engineers within the organisation.
“Engineers are hugely important within Rolls-Royce, they are at the heart of everything we do,” he says. “Their importance is reflected by the fact that I am on the main board. There are not many other companies where engineering is represented at the highest level. Rolls-Royce is a products and services company, but all our services are based on our products. So those products have to be right – and that responsibility comes down to the engineers we employ.”
Crucial pair of engines
On the civil aerospace side of the business, Smith is currently overseeing important milestones on two crucial projects – achieving entry-into-service of the Trent 1000 on Boeing’s 787, and continuing the development of the Trent XWB for the Airbus A350. The 787 test-flight programme now comprises four aircraft powered by Trent 1000 engines, while two XWB engines are running on test-beds in Derby in advance of flight testing next year.
These two projects will be the mainstay of Rolls-Royce’s civil business during the next 10 years, potentially accounting for thousands of engines over that period. But Smith and his team of engineers are already taking a longer view, assessing radical new designs such as open-rotor engines for introduction in the middle of the next decade. Open-rotor engines have a higher bypass ratio than turbofans or turbojets for an equivalent-sized device and so, theoretically, can deliver much-sought-after efficiency improvements.
The company has recently completed a third set of wind-tunnel tests of potential open-rotor designs, but engineering obstacles still need to be overcome. “Open-rotor excites me, but it remains a huge challenge to the airframe and engine developers in that it will need to be a truly integrated product,” says Smith. “Yes, it offers significant potential fuel-burn advantage, but the integration challenge will be massive if we are to minimise noise and drag. I think open-rotor is going to be for mid next decade, and there needs to be a lot of research and development to get there. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Meanwhile, away from what would be considered Rolls-Royce’s traditional markets, the company is pushing forward with a venture in the renewable-energy sector, with its wholly owned Tidal Generation (TGL) subsidiary. TGL has developed a tidal-stream turbine consisting of a three-bladed, upstream pitch controlled rotor with a relatively standard drivetrain and power electronics. The turbine unit itself is buoyant to allow it to be retrieved to shore for maintenance within a single slack-water period of around 30 minutes. The foundation is a lightweight steel tripod, installed using patented fast drilling techniques. The ease of deployment and retrieval allows all maintenance to be carried out on shore, significantly reducing the need for costly marine operations and allowing a spare machine to continue generating while maintenance is completed.
A 500kW concept demonstrator turbine was installed at the EMEC marine test facility in Orkney earlier this year, and Smith remains positive that it’s a good market to be in. “The device began to generate electricity for the first time a few weeks ago,” he says. “We think it’s a good product and it’s certainly creating a level of excitement for us, but it is early days.”
Engineers at Rolls-Royce have also been looking at other low-carbon products. These include a solid-oxide fuel cell for stationary power generation applications which could be developed subsequently for transport, military and marine uses. The fuel cell is produced by screen printing on low-cost ceramic-type materials and has the potential to nearly double the simple-cycle efficiency of existing power generation technologies with negligible air emissions. However, Smith recognises that the project has not been without challenges.