Pratt & Whitney feeling the thrust

 - April 30, 2007, 5:49 AM

The life of a component supplier is a difficult one in the aerospace and business aviation industries. Being dependent on the airframe manufacturers for business severely limits a company’s ability to expand to new markets. But at least one engine manufacturer is having a good go of it these days. Pratt & Whitney’s sales increased 20 percent between 2005 and last year, and according to company executives, this type of growth will extend well into the future.

The Hartford, Conn.-based engine supplier that began life making radial piston engines has existed in recent years mainly for the purpose of building turbine engines for the airline and military markets. But that balance has shifted as Pratt
& Whitney Canada (P&WC), the company’s smaller-engines commercial aviation division, continues expanding at a rapid rate.

In fact, P&WC has doubled in the last five years. Research and development and certification have also been strong suits for P&WC. The division has certified an average of five new engines a year for the past 12 years. And there’s no sign of that pace slowing anytime soon. Between new products on the horizon and the expansion of business aviation, the Longueuil, Quebec-based subdivision has a bright future.

All told, P&WC delivered 2,400 engines last year, and it plans to deliver more than 3,000 this year. Of course, that could change, depending on airframers’ demands.
Very light jets (VLJs) in particular are difficult to track, according to P&WC president Alain Bellemare. The company produces the PW600 line, chosen to power the Eclipse 500, Cessna Mustang and Embraer Phenom 100. “If Eclipse keeps on having technical issues, we will adjust the schedule,” he told AIN.

According to Bellemare, the company is prepared to deliver up to 1,000 PW600 variants this year if demand warrants, though the expected number quoted usually hovers around 700. More than 100 engines have gone out the door thus far this year. The ability to boost or shrink production has been easier with the PW600, according to Bellemare, because of the engineers’ ability to greatly reduce assembly time. Whereas previous engines took approximately eight days to go from beginning to ready-to-ship, P&WC has reduced the time on the PW600 to 10 hours, including test. “Eight is the target,” said Bellemare.

Of course, when most people in business aviation think of P&WC, the venerable PT6 comes to mind. This industry workhorse has an astounding 500 million fleet hours.
Though variations of the turboprop do come regularly, big news is relatively sparse.
That cycle might be broken shortly, as the company is working hard to develop full-authority digital engine control (fadec) for the rotorcraft version. The turboshaft PT6C-69E, which powers the EC 175, already has the option. Bellemare has no doubt that fadec is the way of the future. “We get many, many requests from our customers for it,” he said.

Other than electronic controls, the future of the PT6 is somewhat uncertain. Though a replacement is being studied, the company won’t speculate on when the market might see it come to fruition. The obvious starting point for a successor at this juncture is the PW600 core, given that the size and power ratings are relatively close. But converting the PW600 into a turboprop and turboshaft is not the plan at this point, said Bellemare.

The company is also busy at the top end of its corporate thrust bracket, developing what will be its largest turbofan to date, one in the 10,000-pound class. According to Bellemare, development began in the late 1990s and business looks good for the future. As of now, P&WC is competing at Dassault for the French airframer’s new super-midsize and, along with Rolls-Royce and GE, at Cessna for its large-cabin concept.

“It costs hundreds of millions to launch in this class,” said Bellemare. “You need to sell thousands of engines to recoup your costs.” But, he adds, “We’re ready.” With a product like this, the company no doubt benefits from the experience of its parent south of the border in Connecticut, which is in the business of producing large engines. And while the new P&WC engine is not simply an enhanced version of an existing product, having the depth of knowledge from a parent company that makes far bigger engines is a valuable asset.

The brass in Hartford are obviously pleased with Bellemare and his division’s progress over the last few years. In late March, the French Canadian was promoted to executive vice president, Pratt & Whitney Strategy & Development. In his new role, Bellemare will report directly to P&W president Steve Finger on strategic moves for the entire company. As such, Bellemare has relocated to Hartford and left the day-to-day operations to his deputy, executive v-p John Saabas.

Geared Turbofan

Although the company’s U.S. headquarters (where commercial and military engines are produced) has enjoyed some growth lately, it is still trying to regain market share after years of missteps, including a decision not to compete with the CFM56 on the Boeing 737. But Pratt & Whitney president Finger hopes all that will change in the future as the company rests its collective weight on the geared turbofan. “It’s critical to the future of the industry,” said Finger.

The geared turbofan (GTF) is the company’s answer to fuel efficiency and noise reduction. According to Finger, the current turbofan engine will see only marginal reductions in emissions and noise over the coming years, but the GTF promises to provide 12-percent better fuel efficiency in its first iteration over the current leader among turbofans. The engine should also be 20 to 25 dB quieter, he said.

Essentially, the GTF uses a series of gears in a vertical plane to slow the bypass fan and increase the compressor speeds. Though one might expect the extra parts to add length and weight to the engine, the company claims both actually decrease with the addition of the gears.

Finger didn’t specify how the engineers plan to recoup the loss of bypass power at low speeds, but presumably the increase in the core’s output will compensate. The company plans to run the engine this year, fly it next year and have it in production by 2012. Initially the application will be a single-aisle airliner, but the company has not ruled out a jump to business aviation, said Finger.