High Temperature Research Centre (HTRC)
University of Birmingham
The High Temperature Research Centre (HTRC) has been established with Rolls-Royce plc, creating a unique world-class casting, design, simulation and manufacturing research facility. It produces aero engine castings, delivering underpinning casting materials research, radical process improvements and predictive processing modelling. Located at Ansty Park, the HTRC is complemented by laboratory facilities at the university's Edgbaston campus. Rolls-Royce is the sole co-investor and has committed over £40m to the project.
- There is a strong collaborative partnership between the University of Birmingham and Rolls-Royce, fostering knowledge exchange between academia and industry;
- HTRC has formed a strong partnership with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and is working with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL);
- Founded on prior research, the HTRC has already started to demonstrate new manufacturing capabilities, providing significant time compression in design and manufacturing components for engine development programmes;
- HTRC has secured £5m of funding from Innovate UK's Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI);
- Work at the HTRC is expected to deliver up to six new patents in the near term;
- The secure setting of the HTRC has been key to collaboration between industry and academic researchers, allowing commercially sensitive information to be shared internally.
"There is a greater amount of the manufacturing process under one roof [at the HTRC] than anywhere in Rolls Royce" (Project leader)
The HTRC has developed a research programme that aligns with the production process, and employs a partnership model with Rolls-Royce to resource high priority work. The centre provides a unique collaboration and translational interface between research, design and manufacturing processes.
Workspace and equipment
The HTRC facilities focus on design and manufacturing aspects of investment casting, and host the following processes: Core, Wax, Shell, Cast, Chemical Processing, Measurement & Inspection, and Laboratories. The HTRC contains equipment that allows research at the production scale and includes a single crystal casting facility, as well as metallurgy and materials characterisation equipment.
The integration of an in-house equipment base has accelerated processes and provided additional opportunities for data analysis and the development of new process controls.
The focus on security at the HTRC allows academics, researchers and engineers to share and develop commercially valuable Intellectual Property (IP).
Co-location and research/industry interaction
The co-location of industry and academia at the HTRC breaks down silos between the research, design and production processes. This promotes a dialogue between researchers and engineers, shortens R&D times and speeds up the delivery of useable technologies. The co-location of Rolls-Royce staff and researchers promotes knowledge exchange between industry and academia. Researchers at the HTRC develop skills such as production process management and control, with Rolls-Royce engineers able to optimise equipment use outside of the highly-automated production environment.
Co-location of industrial and academic expertise means that researchers can scope production issues with Rolls-Royce; this has resulted in research-led efficiencies through reducing defects due to improvements in the manufacturing process.
Staffing and skills outputs
The HTRC comprises operational staff running the facility, researchers and engineers based in the centre, and a network of associates who use the facility.
Rolls-Royce has embedded its single crystal casting research facilities to HTRC, creating ten engineer positions in the process.
The HTRC has already taken on six apprentices. The retention rate for apprentices is good, with one returning as a full-time employee, and several expressing interest in returning at the end of their posts. The research element integrated into the HTRC model has been an important factor in both attracting and retaining not only apprentices but staff at all levels, who highlighted the benefits of the research-focused training opportunity offered, and the novel and varied work that provides opportunities for extended learning and development.
Research outputs and commercialisation
The HTRC complements industry by providing research settings at the scale of production. The centre has sped up the process to develop components for demonstrator machines, and the first HTRC programme achieved delivery 13 months from the start of design - significantly shorter than the typical programme length. Innovation has also fed into the supply chain, with one supplier relocating R&D from the business to the HTRC.
Fundamental research on next-generation jet engines is also being carried out, incorporating new materials and 3D printing techniques. Improvements to mature technologies to support projects are equally important. For example, IP developed during tool design and automation will be patented, and researchers anticipate that a further five patents will emerge from this work in the future.
In 2016, the HTRC secured funding for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Programme Grant for transpiration cooling systems for jet engine turbines and hypersonic flight. Bringing together a consortium of collaborators from the University of Oxford, Imperial College, London, and Southampton University, the HTRC will research manufacturing technologies for next generation turbine cooling systems. The research has already generated one patent application, with a further process improvement patent due.
Additionality of the UKRPIF
A smaller scale version of the facilities in the Edgbaston campus had been operating for some 15 years. Space dedicated to industrial processes has now increased from less than 1000m2 to 6600m2. In Edgbaston, any increase would have been limited to less than 500m2, with the facility then having to 'swap in and out' equipment as research programmes developed, operating only part of the process chain at any one time. Further, the HTRC demonstrates an increased translation potential, in widening the possible technologies that can be tested by researchers.
Without the UKRPIF, the Birmingham and Rolls-Royce partnership would have only progressed incrementally, causing two issues. Firstly, the facilities may not have been designed with security sufficient for Rolls-Royce to share its knowledge and data. Secondly, further collaborative research would have been constrained by production plants unable to run experiments and tests as this would have disrupted production. UKRPIF investment has enabled a production scale unit to be developed for research, skills and training.
Future activity and lessons learned
The HTRC's work continues to inform new standards for equipment. The HTRC is also pursuing further automation within the manufacturing route to enhance process, product and system capabilities, and researchers are currently exploring ways to provide a new range of tests and measures that would improve the precision and control of the processes. The centre is also looking to initiate further partnerships with industries outside of aerospace that use investment casting, and is actively seeking new partners.
The HTRC is currently recruiting two new Chairs who will be funded by the university for five years.