As a not-so-secret aviation fan the recent Farnborough Air Show was crammed with all sorts of delights. The shape of the wings of the Qatar Air Boeing 787 Dreamliner taking off for a demonstration flight over the airfield were a marvel of industrial engineering and a truly beautiful design. The behemoth Airbus A380, now an established part of many aviation fleets, continued to impress with its scale and power. But it was in the quiet corner of the tradeshow, hidden from view among the various tents, that my attention was most piqued.
Long established as a maker of ridiculously luxurious automobiles (see: in-door mounted umbrellas), Rolls-Royce is perhaps less well known as the manufacturer of high performance jet engines. In fact, it is the leading manufacturer of jet engines for corporate jets (holding a little more than 34% market share) and its engines are used in 45 of 50 of the world’s leading commercial aviation fleets. Rolls-Royce had on display at Farnborough a remarkable scale model, celebrating its latest turbofan jet engine the Trent 1000, made entirely out of Lego.
A picture is worth a thousand words. An interface is worth a thousand pictures.
— Ben Shneiderman
You may recall I might have mentioned a fondness for Lego in a previous post or two. This engine model is the most technically complicated design ever produced in Lego. At 152,000 pieces it is truly magnificent. But that only serves to trigger a further exploration of the engine itself.
The Lego model serves to open up a consideration of how deceptively simple the engine appears yet is obviously a wildly expensive and complicated piece of machinery. To that end, Rolls-Royce’s executives have been known to state that their engines, weighing almost six tons, are worth their weight in silver (the Trent 1000 are actually worth three times their weight in silver.) By comparison the average car is worth its weight—in ground beef.
Bizarre conversion rates aside, the statistics on the actual Trent 1000 engine are amazing:
This produces between 53,000 – 74,000lb of thrust.
The heart of the engine is made of titanium turbofan blades each not much bigger than a chef’s kitchen knife and each generating 800 hp – the equivalent of a Formula 1 race car.
The outside edge of the turbofan blades travel at twice the speed of sound.
For all the noise internally the new engines are the quietest engines around for their power to weight ratio.
The internal temperatures of the engine can rise to a level half as hot as the surface of the sun!
With this kind of complexity the intricacy of the engineering leaves little room for error. Which is why the ability to visualize in three dimensions is critical to not only test new innovations, but also to control the costs associated with producing a piece of equipment designed to propel people through the atmosphere at great speed.
3D models enabled the acceleration of collaborative thinking between Rolls-Royce engineers and their customers, and the earlier identification and prevention of potential problems in the Trent 1000 design. Advanced performance-driving technologies could be created and tested, such as the previously mentioned soluble core high pressure turbine blades, that provide life-cycle cost benefits which airlines are seeking as a way to offset their most expensive overhead, jet fuel. Smart features such as the 3D aero design compressor and low-hub-tip ratio fan also ensure the engine is efficient and reliable across a wide range of operations which is critical for lower fuel consumption.
Design elements that might have taken longer to conceive and been more error prone if produced on paper could be realized swiftly digitally. For Rolls-Royce the evolution of its engines has steadily improved fuel efficiency and over the past 30 years has extended the operating life of engines tenfold (to about ten years between major rebuilds). Thinking spatially enables questions to be asked an answered about testing, construction, access, maintenance, and safety. Modeling has delivered performance that customers prize. And Rolls-Royce is not doing too badly, either.