British engine manufacturer marks a century in business

 - December 18, 2007, 6:57 AM

The story of how a 100-year-old prestige motor car company evolved into one of the world’s premier aircraft engine manufacturers is rooted in the weaving together of two fundamental principles–adaptability and commonality.

It was 100 years ago last May that a chance meeting between the Honorable Charles Rolls and Henry Royce occurred. Royce had just built his first motor car in 1904 when he met Rolls. For his part, Rolls had a company that sold quality motor cars in London. The meeting led to an agreement whereby Royce Limited would manufacture a range of cars to be exclusively sold by CS Rolls & Co.; they were to bear the name Rolls-Royce.

The success of the new cars led to the formation of the Rolls-Royce company in March 1906 and to the launch of the six-cylinder Silver Ghost, which within a year was hailed as “the best car in the world.” Prophetically, the company’s memorandum of association refers to vehicles “for use on land, or water or in the air.”

Few people know that Charles Rolls was a pioneer aviator and friend of the Wright brothers. Wilbur Wright tried convincing Rolls to build an aircraft engine, but it would be a few years before Rolls-Royce would do it. Rolls flew the first two-way crossing of the English Channel on June 2, 1910, a little more than a month before he died when his modified French-built Wright Flyer crashed, making him the first Englishman to die in a flying accident.

At the outbreak of World War I Royce finally built the company’s first aviation engine, the Eagle V12, which powered about half of the Allied aircraft used in the war. The Eagle also powered the first direct transatlantic flight as well as the first flight from England to Australia.

It was during the late 1920s that the company developed the “R” engine, which laid the foundation for one of the most famous engines ever built–the Merlin, which went on to gain fame pulling the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire through the Battle of Britain, and the Lancaster bomber to Germany and back in Britain’s fierce campaign of night bombardment. The Merlin established the fine auto-maker as an aviation engine manufacturer worth note.

During the same period, the company also worked on developing the Welland gas turbine engine that powered the Gloster Meteor fighter in 1944. The success of the Welland was a major factor in Rolls-Royce’s concentrating on gas-turbine engines after the war, a move that many considered to be a risky proposition at the time. It paid off, though, as the armed forces of many countries began powering their aircraft with Rolls-Royce turbine engines.

In 1948 the company’s Dart turboprop (four of them) powered the Vickers Viscount, the first civil turbine aircraft, spelling the end of the piston-powered propliner. In 1958 the Britannia, powered by four Bristol Proteus, became the first turboprop airliner to enter transatlantic service.

Rolls-Royce Dominates the Market
Mired in bankruptcy in the early 1970s, the company sold off the motor car that had made the name Rolls-Royce famous worldwide. Some observers saw the decision as a business error; few would have the foresight to predict the company would become one of the most important aircraft engine manufacturers in the world. Within 20 years Rolls-Royce would expand from its airline and military base to become firmly established in the business aircraft market when it formed a joint venture with BMW called BMW Rolls-Royce. Together they built the BR700-series turbofan to power the Gulfstream V and Bombardier Global Express, and later the Boeing 717, Nimrod MRA4 (a maritime-reconnaissance descendant of the Comet jetliner) and Bombardier Global 5000.

As the company continued to expand in the 1990s it acquired Indianapolis-based Allison Engine, one of the most significant acquisitions the company would make. The Allison 250 was, and remains, a very successful program, particularly in its application to light helicopters. In addition, Allison had the AE (Allison Engine), a new civil engine line that included the AE3007 used on the rapidly growing fleet of Embraer ERJ 145 regional jets.

Though Rolls-Royce inherited the AE family, it is nonetheless a classic example of the admonition of Sir John Rose, CEO of Rolls-Royce, to “Create once, use many times.” According to Jerry Wouters, director of marketing for AE Civil Engines, the common engine core has turbofan, turboprop and turboshaft variants that power aircraft as diverse as the ERJ 145, Citation X, Saab 2000 and V-22 Osprey. “What makes the family so efficient is that the variants share an 80-percent similarity with one another,” Wouters told AIN. “The AE engine fleet has accumulated 14.5 million flight hours,” he said. “Since the engine’s certification in the mid-1990s Rolls-Royce has built just about one new derivative of the engine a year.”

One of the major benefits of the Allison acquisition was to bolster Rolls-Royce’s position in the helicopter engine business. At the time the company had sold more than 27,000 Model 250s. Alex Youngs, business development director for helicopters, said the Rolls-Royce 250 is one of the most successful small turbines ever developed. “It was originally designed to meet a military requirement for a 250-shp turboshaft but it has gone on to spawn a range of civil and military variants. In an industry that periodically celebrates a million hours of service, the Rolls-Royce 250 clocks almost a million operational flying hours every month.”

According to Youngs, the Rolls-Royce helicopter engine product line accounts for 170 million flying hours (the 250 accounts for 160 million hours by itself). The company has delivered some 31,000 turboshaft engines since 1957 for 200-plus applications worldwide, with power ranging from 400 to 6,000 shp. Although probably best known for its turboshaft applications, the 250 has also powered some 60 fixed-wing designs.

Model 250 engines and parts are produced and integrated at Rolls-Royce facilities in Indianapolis and Bristol. More than 18,000 of the engines are still in service.

A Culture of Adaptability
Part of Rolls-Royce’s success stems from management’s ability to look forward and adapt to the times. For instance, the company is paring down the 2.7 million sq ft of floor space in one of its facilities to 1.9 million sq ft. The excess floor space is partly the result of unused space and partly the result of more efficient assembly procedures.

Allen Poppa, director of logistics assembly and test operations, said the AE3007 was built originally by assemblers going to a parts bin, hand picking individual parts, then returning to the assembly area to work on the engine. “It was hardly an efficient operation,” he said.

Today, assemblers roll a cart containing the 27 prepackaged kits out to the building site so they have everything at their fingertips. “Kitting the parts saved between 50 and 60 percent of the assembler’s time,” Poppa said. “Total time to complete the engine before kitting was between 20 and 22 days. It is now down to 12 to 13 days, due primarily to kitting and some flow line changes.”

Future Programs
Wouters sees a number of factors that portend a bright future for Rolls-Royce. “Emerging markets in Asia and Latin America will eventually present significant opportunities,” he said. “The current RVSM situation will hasten the retirement of some aircraft, the economy is recovering and fractional programs, though not as strong as in past years, are still growing. Then there’s the airline hassle factor driving additional business aviation sales.

Finally, the existing corporate market also presents a lot of potential because only about 8 percent of all delivered business jets have been retired. The age of the fleet is increasing, and you don’t have to sell those companies on business aviation; they already understand the value of owning a business jet.”

Certainly one of the strongest indications of the company’s adaptability lies in its maintenance-related offerings. Long before most OEMs envisioned working on their products as a profit center, Rolls-Royce pioneered the contract maintenance business with the “Power by the Hour” program more than 30 years ago. The undeniable logic of an OEM providing maintenance lies in the reality that when sales are down, existing engines still require upkeep. Providing maintenance helps flatten the historic downturns of the OEM business.

According to Andrew Maasch, MR&O network executive, Rolls-Royce today continues to have popular long-term maintenance contracts available to both civil and military users. For instance, between the Citation X corporate customers and the regional operators of the ERJ, Rolls-Royce has better than 90 percent of the AE3007 turbofans under long-term maintenance agreements.

“In 2004 Rolls-Royce launched the Model 250 First Network (full-service integrated Rolls-Royce service team),” Maasch said. “First members consist of three company-owned Rolls-Royce Service Centers, 13 independently owned authorized maintenance centers, four independently owned authorized military overhaul facilities and four independently owned authorized repair facilities.”

Rolls-Royce’s maintenance business breaks down to 48 percent civil, 25 percent defense, 17 percent marine and 10 percent energy. The company has 35,200 employees servicing 54,000 gas turbines across all product lines worldwide. What is eye-opening is that Rolls-Royce’s service facilities generated 50 percent of the company’s revenue.

Kiowa Warrior Demonstrates Rolls-Royce Adaptability

Probably the most high-profile Rolls-Royce-powered helicopter today is the U.S. Army’s Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter, which is in use in Iraq. Nine operating units and approximately 200 aircraft have seen service in Iraq, with operational tempo rates reaching up to four times those encountered during peacetime. Kiowa Warriors have flown the most hours and maintained the highest readiness rates of all Army aircraft operated in Iraq and have also delivered more ordnance than any other attack helicopter, Rolls-Royce claims.

The OH-58D force in Iraq has logged more than 71,000 flight hours to date. One of the key contributors to the exceptionally high reliability rates of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet in Iraq has been the installation of an Aerospace Filtration Systems engine barrier filter (EBF).

The original particle separator installed on the Kiowa Warrior did not adequately protect the engine against contaminants during initial operations at the Army’s National Training Center in the California desert. During the early fielding of the -C30R/3 engine between 2000 and 2002, more than 50 engines had to be removed prematurely due to compressor erosion (resulting in low power). As a result, in early 2000 the Army initiated a program to develop and qualify an improved inlet protection system.

Modifications of existing aircraft were only partially complete when hostilities in Iraq got under way. Proof of the value of the EBF system soon became obvious, with EBF-equipped units enjoying zero engine removals. As a result of this experience, the Army sent field teams to Iraq to install EBF kits in-theater. Despite the challenging operating conditions in Iraq, where the sand is so fine it is often compared to talcum powder, no fewer than eight -C30R/3 engines have successfully reached their turbine time between overhaul (TBO) interval in-theater, a remarkable accomplishment.

At press time, most of the initial Kiowa Warrior units deployed to Iraq had been rotated back to their home bases and had been replaced with new units. There are currently two new -C30R/3-equipped units operating under CLS with contractor field service representatives in Iraq. These units continue to benefit from the exceptional support level and high engine reliability the Army has come to expect. Premature engine removal rates remain below projections and more engines are reaching TBO.