Skip to main content

Problem Solving for the Giants of Industry

Professor Cecil Armstrong has no doubt about the benefits of academics working in collaboration with industry. ‘They can supply us with problems we never thought of, problems with a complexity we could never dream up in the lab, and that helps us to keep our focus on the real issues.’

Cecil, from Queen’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, explains his research aims: ‘With very complex systems like gas turbine engines, companies are trying to predict or simulate how the engine will behave in all possible situations it might get into during service.

‘Typically, that involves taking complex geometry and making analysis models which can predict that behaviour. Getting the analysis models ready to run so that designers can use them to make intelligent decisions about changing things for the better is where our focus is.’
Cecil works closely with colleague Dr Trevor Robinson in the Finite Element Modelling Group. Trevor graduated at Queen’s in 2003 then embarked on a PhD on Vivace, a European Framework programme on the process of making the analysis models of gas turbine engines more efficient.
Professor Cecil Armstrong and Dr Trevor Robinson
Among the many industrial partners on the project was Rolls-Royce with whom Queen’s has a lasting relationship, shown most recently in the completion of a Knowledge Transfer Secondment. It involved a placement for a postdoctoral researcher, Dr Jonathan Makem, allowing the company to have exposure to the University’s technology and allowing him to identify new research opportunities.
Trevor explains, ‘The preparation of these analysis models involves breaking pieces of geometry down"There’s a little triangle: the industrial end user has the problem, we are the source of research ideas and concepts, then the commercial people take that and deliver to the end user something they can support." into a mesh which is what the analysis is run on. For complex components this can take three to six months so we do our best to make that process more efficient, to speed up the design and make it less costly.
‘Jonny was able to take work that we’d developed here to see how it would perform in real-world components, to see what time savings were available, what the issues were and what we hadn’t thought about.’
Jonathan, who now works in advanced simulation development at Siemens, says, ‘It was invaluable to get this kind of exposure. At the end of my secondment I was given the opportunity to present the results of my work to the senior management team within Mechanical Methods and this raised their interest in future research on similar topics.’
Cecil says, ‘There’s an order of magnitude between a proof of concept – where you have an idea and do some minimal research – and translating that into an industrial tool. That requires major investment and development. Companies are willing to explore these options because they don’t want to miss anything. They call it their de-risking strategy.
‘There’s a little triangle: the industrial end user has the problem, we are the source of research ideas and concepts, then the commercial people will take that and deliver to the end user something they can support and will be part of their process. We can’t ever be in a situation where a company like Rolls-Royce is dependent on a bit of University software. They just wouldn’t entertain that.’
Trevor emphasises benefits for teaching. ‘I take the introductory design courses. I was able to ask some of the Rolls-Royce engineers what the main shortfalls are with graduates coming into their company. So then I’m able to go back to my students and tell them – these are the things we’re going to focus on and this is why they’re important. The students see real benefit in direct feedback from the company.’
Cecil says, ‘The work is tremendously exciting. The job of an academic has evolved hugely over the years.’
Trevor adds, ‘It takes time. Ten years ago we had an idea which we floated to Rolls-Royce but they didn’t respond. Then recently they brought it back to us as something they might like to look at. It’s about trust. Companies build their faith in you when they see over a number of years that you can deliver.’