Rolls-Royce and GKN open carbon fan pre-production facility

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Rolls-Royce and its partner GKN Aerospace have opened a development facility to mature manufacturing processes for the planned introduction of carbon composite fan blades and cases on future engines.

The £14.8 million (£22.7 million) facility is part of the two companies' 50:50 joint venture Composite Technology Application Limited (CTAL) and is located on GKN's site in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, UK.

It was half-funded by the UK government and will employ around 70 people.

The objective is to refine manufacturing processes to fabricate carbonfibre fan blades and cases on an industrial scale using automated production methods.

While there are, for example, different ways to attach the titanium leading and trailing edges to the composite aerofoil body, the technicians will determine what method will offer the optimum combination of accuracy, manufacturing time, reliability, cost and longevity.

Such details partly depend on what engine Rolls-Royce will employ the future fan blade and case, according to Rich Oldfield, director of technology at GKN Aerospace.

The plan is to introduce the composite components on a new engine model beyond the Trent XWB towards the end of the decade.

As the focus on next-generation single-aisle aircraft been moved further into the future thanks to Airbus and Boeing's decisions to re-engine their respective A320 and 737-families, the composite fan blade and case might be more likely to find its first application on a new high-thrust engine type model.

Oldfield said this could potentially be for the planned future Boeing 777 or a re-engined Airbus A380 variant.

The latest 777-200LR, -300ER and freighter variants are exclusively powered by General Electric GE90 engines, which use composite fan blades.

CTAL's development facility will produce around 100 test blades as part of the development programme to mature the manufacturing processes, said Oldfield.

Where the industrial production facility for the composite components will be located is not yet clear. This is to be determined by 2014 and could lead to the fan blades and cases being manufactured in separate facilities.

Oldfield said that the move from to titanium to a composite fan system will offer "very significant" weight savings. As the lighter fan blades will allow additional weight savings in other engine sections further downstream, he added that it would be possible to cut the weight of an "average large engine" by around 500lb (227kg).