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Rolls-Royce back in the narrowbody engine development business

14th October, 2011

Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney have signed an agreement to develop next generation engines to power future mid-size aircraft in the 120–230 seat range, putting Rolls-Royce back into the picture for narrowbody engines. Rolls is an important partner in International Aero Engines (IAE), the four member venture which produces the V2500 engine for the A320, but it has not developed a new engine for the next generation of regional jets and narrowbodies, which are due to come into service over the next six years.

The aim of the joint venture (JV) is to develop new engines for the next generation of aircraft that will replace the existing ‘mid-size’ fleet. The 20-year forecast for this segment is a worldwide demand of around 20,000 new aircraft, with a requirement for nearly 45,000 engines.

Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney will hold an equal share in the JV, which will focus on high bypass ratio geared turbofan technology. This technology has already been developed by Pratt & Whitney for its PW1000G engines family. Japanese Aero Engine Corporation (JAEC) and MTU Aero Engines (MTU), partners of IAE and the PW1100G programme for the Airbus A320neo, also intend to join the new collaboration.

Rolls-Royce sells its share of IAE

Along with the JV, Rolls-Royce has also announced a restructuring of its participation in IAE. Rolls-Royce will sell its equity and programme shares in IAE to Pratt & Whitney for USD1.5 billion and in addition receive an undisclosed agreed payment for each hour flown by the current installed fleet of V2500-powered aircraft for 15 years from completion of the transaction.

IAE will continue to exist, delivering engines and customer support without interruption. Rolls-Royce said it “remains committed to IAE and its customers”. The company will continue to be responsible for the manufacture of high-pressure compressors, fan blades and discs as well as the provision of engineering support and final assembly of 50% of V2500 engines. While Pratt & Whitney will become the majority shareholder in IAE, the company intends to offer some of Rolls-Royce's share to the other partners.

Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney have emphasised that the restructuring and new JV indicates they have found a way to continue working together despite Rolls-Royce not participating in the A320neo engine programme.

New concepts for aircraft engine development to be explored

Importantly, the new JV will also collaborate on future studies for next generation propulsion systems, including advanced geared engines, open rotor technology and other advanced configuration. These technologies are estimated to be 10-15 years away from being ready for implementation. In recent years, both Airbus and Boeing have indicated that clean-sheet narrowbody designs will not be able to deliver the looked-for improvements in efficiency until beyond 2020.

Rolls-Royce has not been sitting idle, pursuing various research and development avenues, notably open rotor technologies. Rolls-Royce has estimated that open rotor engines could deliver up to a 30% improvement in fuel efficiency over in-service turbofans and at least a 10%-15% improvement over the advanced turbofans that are due to come into service in the next few years. But, without a new narrowbody engine offering the company has ceded the market segment to Pratt & Whitney and CFM International for the foreseeable future.

Two engine competitors left in narrowbody market

Pratt & Whitney made the brave move of deciding to go at it alone developing the ‘PurePower’ PW1000G family, although it has spread the risk thorough some of its existing partners such as MTU and JAEC. The geared turbofan family offers engines of 15,000-30,000 lbs thrust, designed for application on regional jets and narrowbodies. Pratt & Whitney has confirmed that it is looking at higher power derivatives of the engine, potentially for widebody application.

CFM International, a JV of General Electric and Snecma, has also gone with a clean-sheet design with the LEAP-X engine family. Their offering is more suited to narrowbodies rather than regional jets, offering 18,000-35,000 lbs thrust.

These two engines are the ones that will power the aircraft which will dominate the market segment between 70 and 200 seats over the next decade, if not further. Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000G has been selected for four aircraft platforms while CFM’s offering has been chosen for three, with both engines sharing one platform.

Six aircraft featuring these new technology turbofans will enter service over the next six years. 2013 will see the debut of the Bombardier CSeries, powered by the PW1500G. 2014 will see the PW1200G-powered MRJ enter service. Airbus’ re-engined A320neo (new engine option), powered by either the PW1100G or the LEAP-X1B, will debut in late 2015, while Boeing’s B737 MAX, powered exclusively by the LEAP-X2, will enter service in 2017, although Boeing may pull this back a little, depending on the final MAX design and the engineering requirements.

China’s new C919, under development by COMAC, will use the LEAP-X1C as its exclusive powerplant, although AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine is developing an indigenous engine for the aircraft as well. Russia’s MS-21, also due to enter service in 2016, will have the PW-1400G as its Western-sourced powerplant, as well as the Aviadvigatel PD-14 being developed locally.

Embraer remains the great unknown, with no firm plans yet announced for its next generation regional jet offering. The company has confirmed it is leaning towards developing a new 100+ seat aircraft, but there are also other options, such as refitting its E195 with new engines and stretching the aircraft further, or even a new high-efficiency turboprop design. A decision is due before the end of this year, the company says, making Embraer the last player to join the board of narrowbody strategy for the next decade.

Narrowbody re-engagement

Rolls-Royce executives have a certain amount of egg on their faces after stating last year that the company simply didn’t see the business case for fitting new technology engines to older airframes, preferring instead for clean-sheet designs. Aircraft manufactures disagreed, seeing bigger benefits for clean-sheet designs could be gained if they waited a few more years. Airline customers, looking to gain whatever efficiency advantage they can, purchased re-engined aircraft.

Airbus has so far secured 1245 orders and commitments for the A320neo and Boeing has announced 496 commitments (but no firm orders) for the B737-MAX. More large orders are likely, with Qatar Airways, Southwest Airlines and Continental United all stating they are looking at the reworked aircraft. Airbus estimates the market for the A320neo at about 4000 aircraft.

Without its own new technology offering, Rolls-Royce has also decided on a little bit of re-engagement with the narrowbody engine market. As part of the JV announcement, Rolls-Royce also announced that it will make a “modest financial investment” in the PurePower PW1100G-JM engine programme, which will power the A320neo. Without this, Rolls-Royce may have been locked out of the narrowbody engine segment all together, once the last 2000 V2500 engines were delivered.

With the CSeries, A320neo and B737 MAX now in play and the C919 and MS-21 also in the works, the clean-sheet replacement horizon for new narrowbody aircraft has been pushed out to around 2021-2025, or possibly later. Airbus’ chief operating officer customers, John Leahy, has suggested that the engine technology it needs to offer a clean-sheet design may not be mature until 2030-2035.

The agreement will let each partner continue to focus on its own projects – Pratt & Whitney on the PW1000G family and Rolls-Royce on the widebody-oriented Trent family, which has been chosen for the A380, B787 and is the exclusive powerplant for the A350 XWB. At the same time, the companies will be able to leverage their 'complementary capabilities' to look at the right offering for the future.

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