Rolls-Royce’s reputation and business success rely on its brand value “trusted to deliver excellence”. How important are measurement technologies and skills in maintaining this?
“What would it meant to Rolls-Royce if the UK’s National Measurement System did not exist, or was not internationally respected?” asked one delegate at a recent industry meeting in Westminster designed to improve government understanding of the fundamental importance of metrology to UK prosperity.
“Consistent and reliable measurement underpins every stage of the life-cycle of our products” – Dr Norbert Arndt, Director of Engineering Systems & Services, Rolls-Royce
Dr Norbert Arndt, director of engineering systems & services at Rolls-Royce who delivered a presentation at the event, declined to speculate, simply stating “consistent and reliable measurement underpins every stage of the life-cycle of our products.” Dr Arndt’s earlier description of the conditions inside the combustion chamber of Rolls-Royce’s iconic jet engines clarified why this is so.
“Depending on the engine, the front fan sucks in up to 1200kg of air per second. When that air reaches the combustion chamber it will have about 50 bar pressure and rise to a temperature of around 700°C – which is the temperature at which normal steel begins to glow red. We then inject slightly less than a gallon of fuel per second and combust it.”
When the air leaves the combustion chamber it hits 1700°C – several hundred degrees hotter than the melting point of the nickel alloys used in the turbine of the engine.
For the blades to withstand such temperatures, Rolls-Royce uses a combination or cooling air streams and thermal barrier coatings, but confidence in the integrity of these systems can only be assured by the intricate measurement and monitoring systems used both in flight, and during materials development, says Arndt.
Focusing on the use of measurement in R&D Arndt says, “consistent and reliable testing is integral to our materials design process. This is why it is so important that measurement systems and technologies are accredited. We must be able to consistently understand material properties – what they can and can’t endure.”
Progressing to the manufacturing stage, Arndt points out that measurement defines whether or not parts conform absolutely to their design and are safe to use. In the manufacture of Rolls-Royce single crystal turbine blades, consistent product with accurate wall thickness is achieved using specialist x-ray technology.
“The automated process takes five minutes per blade,” says Ardnt, demonstrating why the technology not only protects Rolls-Royce’s enshrined quality brand, but also gives a competitive edge in manufacturing efficiency.
The UK National Measurement System today
The National Measurement System is a network of laboratories that provide measurement standards, and calibration and testing facilities. It underpins the measurement infrastructure that so many businesses and individuals take for granted every day, but which is fundamental to our ability to function as a society.
For manufacturing, the NMS and the advance of metrology technologies are critical to quality, safety, the development of international trade and the creation of the advanced service, maintenance and monitoring systems which can differentiate UK industry from international offerings.
But government funding for the UK’s National Measurement System (NMS) is declining in real terms leaving the capabilities of organisations within the NMS, like the National Physical Laboratory, at risk. Private sector funding of selected research projects is going some way to fill the gap, but around £15m a year from government would return NMS support to the levels seen a decade ago. Those close the NMS argue that this investment is a duty of care for government, given the public good that springs from the NMS. The National Health Service, for example, relies on the system heavily for advances in medical science.
The decline in funding for the UK’s NMS goes against the actions of other industrially competitive nations. Japan, China and the USA, for example, have all significantly increased investment in their equivalent systems in the last ten years.
Trade bodies Gambica, BMTA and GMTA are supporting a campaign to raise awareness in government of the need to maintain and increase funding of the UK NMS.
They are calling industry members who recognise measurement technology and accreditation as important to their competitive health to write to their local MP, referring their concerns to the Minister for Science and Universities, David Willietts.
Certification of measurement technologies and accreditation of measurement skills in Britain are the responsibilities of the National Measurement System (NMS) and the UK Accreditation Service, representatives of which were also present at this industry meeting.
Emphasizing why confidence in the strength of these bodies is important, not just from a technology calibration and certification point of view, but also for training, Arndt says, “we must be absolutely sure, particularly with regards to the non destructive testing of parts in use, that the people carrying out tests are competent, qualified, and have an understanding of the science behind the technology they are using.”
Furthermore, points out Arndt, “because we are a global company, we must be sure that the system that accredits technology and people here bears relevance to those used in the other places where we have business around the world. We must be sure of getting the same results from the same process.” Again, this international co-ordination of measurement standards is a responsibility for the UK NMS.
Rolls-Royce is embedded in the UK and is a big investor. As such, its competitive well-being is of interest to more than just its employees and direct stakeholders. The company has an order book in excess of £60bn, and the benefits of this trickle down to a wide infrastructure of suppliers and partners.
Of the £491m Rolls-Royce invested in 19 new and improved facilities in 2012 a significant chunk went to UK locations including a new advanced blade casting facility in Rotherham which will employ 150 directly and more in the supply chain. Rolls-Royce’s research and technology work is undertaken at 28 University Technology Research Centers around the globe and 19 of these are based in the UK. Globally Rolls-Royce invested around £919m in these centres and other R&D projects in 2012.
Returning to the hypothetical question of how attractive the UK would be as a business location for Rolls-Royce should its National Measurement System fail, Arndt explains that, while there is no threat of Rolls-Royce shifting its core R&D locations away from the UK en masse, the competitive implications of such a failing would be immense in the long term. “We recorded group revenues in excess of £12bn in 2012 and our best selling technologies today have not yet hit their predicted sales peak. But these same technologies had a lead time of 10-15 years in development.”
In other words, a failing in the NMS – a core element in material properties development, manufacture and service – today, would jeopardise Rolls-Royce’s future ability to play with global rivals such as Pratt-Whitney, GE and aggressive new comers from China. And, in turn, darken the economic prospects of the wider infrastructure in which Rolls-Royce invests so much of its multi billion pound revenues.