Pushing The Boundardies Of Physics

The new aluminum-lithium alloy engine in action (Image credit: Alcoa)

Can you make it work? was the challenge Pratt & Whitney brought to Alcoa for a radically new engine design in 2009. What emerged five years later is a case history about the innovation made possible by close collaboration between suppliers and customers.

“We regularly push the boundaries of physics, but this new engine design called for a fan blade material that hadn’t been invented yet,”explained Sergio Loureiro, Ph.D., vice president, Global Supply Chain at Pratt & Whitney. Eric Roegner, COO, Investment Castings, Forgings & Extrusions at Alcoa, added:

“It was a game-changer.”

“Not only was the fundamental architecture new,” he continued, “but it allowed us to rethink a move out of composites for the larger engines if we could invent a new aluminum alloy.”

What followed was five years of close, iterative work between the two companies, as their engineering teams collaborated to discover a way to realize the strength, weight, and cost benefits of aluminum, while meeting the strict safety and reliability standards that apply to any aerospace project (and particularly to those that rotate).

Both sides were able to explore the literal boundaries of physical science because of the limitations imposed by their respective processes.

“In aerospace, there is a very rigorous structure for any development process, because lives depend on it,” Loureiro explained. “It actually helped us work through the toughest problems.”

Roegner concurred, noting Alcoa’s experience in progressing through a series of technology and readiness levels that mirror each step in the aerospace development process enabled the teams to “speak the same language.”

Another quality that informed the team operation was trust.

“It’s a simple concept,” explained Roegner. “We had two organizations that believed we could accomplish something together that had never been done before. We knew we could help one another win, and if either let the other down, we’d both lose.”

“For this type of innovation to work, each side needs to have a very fundamental understanding of the value they bring to the table,” added Loureiro. “We had the design, and Alcoa had the expertise. This let us share a common vision of revolutionizing the market.”

The outcome was a novel aluminum-lithium alloy that allows the blades to be much thinner than those made with composites, making them 10% lighter, more aerodynamically efficient and significantly lower cost to produce. Pratt & Whitney plans to use these blades in engines for such planes as the new Airbus A320neo.

Similarly, Alcoa partnered with Ford in creating the body of its best-selling F-150 truck out of high-strength aluminum alloy.

“We wanted to give our customers improved work capability, durability, fuel economy and other performance benefits,” said Peter Friedman, Global Manager, Structures and Stamping Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford. “Two iterations of model testing gave us 100% confidence in our design, but we had initial questions about the aluminum alloy, its adhesive bond characteristics, and the availability of 600-700 million pounds of sheet material annually.”

“We knew we could do it, even if it would take a little while to get there,” explained Alcoa’s James Marinelli, Senior Business Technology Leader, Ground Transportation. “We shared Ford’s sense of urgency and commitment to the vision, and worked with them iteratively on not just delivering on its goals, but exceeding them.”

Both sides embedded people in the others’ processes, resulting in a better-performing vehicle that weighs as much as  700 lbs. less than the model it replaced. Alcoa also participated in Ford’s recycling strategy where it worked with other aluminum companies to support the fully closed-loop scrap system Ford installed that returned mixed-supplier scrap back to each company to be returned to the F-150 supply chain.

“How we work now as partners is the real game-changer,” said Roegner. “The days of customers and clients are coming to a close.”