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50 years of outstanding achievement, helping to transform the world of turbomachinery

Published on Jan 23, 2019

The Department's Whittle Laboratory was opened 50 years ago in 1969, and has become internationally recognised as the centre of excellence in aeroengine and turbomachinery research, design tools and education.


Like Whittle in the early days of the jet engine we believe that ‘injecting pace and simplicity’ into the way we develop new propulsion systems is key to meeting this future challenge.   

Professor Rob Miller, Chair in Aerothermal Technology, Director of the Whittle Laboratory


The first patent for a jet engine was filed by Frank Whittle in 1930, and his first practical engine operated in 1937, just over 80 years ago. It has taken huge, sustained effort to develop those early concepts from purely military uses into the super efficient machines which power today’s aircraft.

Frank Whittle was a student in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge from 1934 to 1937, and the Whittle Laboratory commemorates his pioneering work through its name. The individuals and teams which have further progressed jet engine technology in the Whittle Laboratory have now been recognised with the presentation of an Aeronautical Heritage Award by the Royal Aeronautical Society. Over the 50 years since the founding of the lab, the researchers and staff have made innumerable, vital contributions to the technology of jet engines, or more accurately of turbomachinery – which includes other products such as electrical power generators, gas turbines for oil and gas pumping, and domestic items from vacuum cleaners to hair dryers.

The Royal Aeronautical Society is the world’s only professional body dedicated to the aerospace community, seeking to promote the highest professional standards and provide a central forum for sharing knowledge. The Society’s Aeronautical Heritage Award scheme was established to recognise significant contributions made to “the art and science of aeronautics”. The event to hand over the Heritage Award Plaque took place at the Whittle Laboratory on January 23rd.

Professor Rob Miller, the Director of the laboratory, gave a presentation about the Whittle Lab and how its staff and its ethos have helped it to stay at the cutting edge of turbo machinery research, and the implementation of this ground breaking research into practical applications. His presentation follows.

Professor Rob Miller, Chair in Aerothermal Technology, Director of the Whittle Laboratory

Aerospace has entered a period of disruptive market change. Rolls-Royce is developing the UltraFan family of engines with the aim of a 25% reduction in fuel burn by 2025. This is their first major architecture change since the RB211 in the 1970s. The introduction of Machine Learning and High Performance Computing has led to radical changes in their design systems. All this, in recent years, has meant unparalleled levels of technology development at the Whittle Laboratory. 

The broader aerospace sector is also undergoing disruptive change. Electrification of aero-propulsion is resulting in a rapid increase in the number of new entrants in the sector. Over 70 companies globally are planning first flights of electric urban air vehicles by 2024. In the middle of the market, futuristic aircraft architectures are being seriously considered where parts of the propulsion system are embedded in the aircraft fuselage, allowing up to 15% reduction in fuel burn. In terms of very high speed propulsion, companies such as Reaction Engines are developing completely new engine architectures. The Whittle Laboratory is centrally involved in all of these areas of technology development. 

The Whittle Laboratory also does a lot of research in turbomachinery for non-propulsion applications. This sector is also undergoing disruptive change. Companies such as Mitsubishi are developing new gas turbines, which can switch on and off quickly, allowing them to be used on grids which have a significant penetration of renewables. Siemens UK, which makes small land based gas turbines believes that if we can reduce product development times by a factor of three it can double its market share. Dyson, which develops turbomachinery for household products, face the challenge of designing turbomachinery in a completely new area of the turbomachinery design space. Its blades operate at similar Mach numbers i.e. speeds equivalent to Rolls-Royce blades, but its Reynolds numbers i.e. the viscous process in the flow, are much closer to that of insects. In addition Dyson has a demanding product development timescale of months not years. 

We believe that the winners in this new world will be companies who can adapt to new technologies more quickly and at lower cost than the competition. Over the last five years, one of the core aims of the Whittle Laboratory has been to radically transform the way we develop aero-propulsion in the UK, making it at least ten times faster and ten times cheaper. 

Like Whittle in the early days of the jet engine, we believe that ‘injecting pace and simplicity’ into the way we develop new propulsion systems is key to meeting this future challenge.   

The solution, we believe, is to merge the digital and physical systems involved in technology development. This allows us `tighten the circle’ between design, manufacture and testing. We have found that when the technology development timescale approaches the human timescale, around a week, innovation explodes. 

This concept is based on recent pioneering trials undertaken at the Whittle Laboratory (funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute and Rolls-Royce).

To reduce the technology development time scale from years to a week has meant that the time taken to design, manufacture and test technologies has all had to be massively reduced.

1.    We have reduced design times by two orders of magnitude by the use of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) developed to run on Graphics Cards by Dr Graham Pullan (graphics cards that were originally designed for computer gaming). This reduces the CFD runtime for a typical blade to just minutes, allowing us to implement new augmented design systems based on Machine Learning. 

2.    We have reduced manufacturing times by two orders of magnitude by using rapid prototyping and rapid machining. The key, developed by Dr James Taylor, has been to directly link the design system with in-house machine tools, allowing designers to realise physical blades in around a day, direct from the design system. 

3.    We have reduced the time required to test a compressor by at least two orders of magnitude. The key, developed by Dr James Taylor and Dr Tony Dickens, has been to carefully analyse the testing process using value stream analysis. This has allowed around 95% of operations to be removed from the testing process cutting testing time from months to hours.  

In order to take full advantage of agile technology development, a different way of working is required. Traditional technology development is inhibited by inter-organisational barriers and by top-down inflexible management structures.  To overcome this small Formula 1 style, autonomous co-located teams were formed, made up of both industry and academia. This was only possible because of our long term partnerships with industry. 

The work culminated in September 2017 in a trial. An academic/industry team were embedded in the Whittle Lab and given four Rolls-Royce compressor technologies to develop (two from Rolls-Royce Derby, one from Rolls-Royce North America and one from the Whittle). The results were astonishing. In 2005 a similar trial had taken place and took the Whittle Lab team two years. And we weren’t bad at it! In 2017, using the new methods, it took the team a week. This demonstrated cutting the time and cost of testing a technology by a factor of 100. 

Over the next five years, a team led by Dr Nick Atkins, have developed a plan to expand this ‘rapid technology development process’ to around 80% of the UK's future propulsion testing needs. With the support of our industry partners, the University of Cambridge and the UK government, we are planning to significantly expand the Whittle Laboratory building and its new rapid test capability. Watch this space. 

You may think that I’m biased when I say that I honestly believe that the quality of research and education currently available in the Whittle Laboratory is as high, if not higher, than at any time over the last 50 years. In terms of research excellence, Whittle Laboratory publications have been awarded the ‘The Gas Turbine Award’, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers highest honour in the field, an incredible 9 years out of the last 13. In terms of educational excellence, five years ago, we set up the Centre of Doctoral Training in Gas Turbine Aerodynamics. This is a collaboration between three Universities (Cambridge, Oxford and Loughborough) and four companies (Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi, Siemens and Dyson) sponsored by EPSRC with the aim of training the next generation of leaders in the field. The training offers an unparalleled experience with students being lectured by experts from all over the world and undertaking practical training such as stripping a gas turbine at Siemens. This has made the UK the most attractive country in the world for students seeking a graduate education in this field. 

Just as 50 years ago, at the opening of the Whittle Laboratory, the laboratory faced the challenge of developing technologies which would make low cost air travel available to the masses. I believe that today the Whittle Laboratory is perfectly placed to ensure that the UK meets the aerospace challenges of the next 50 years.  

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