Engineering the future: The Rolls-Royce university technology centres

Profile of Professor Richard Parker, Dr Mike Howse and Professor Philip Ruffles from Rolls-Royce plc, winners of the 2011 Glazebrook Medal awarded by the Institute of Physics for the creation, development and expansion of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre (UTC) network, widely held to be the exemplary model for interaction between universities and industry.

Strive for perfection in everything you do – Sir Henry Royce – 1910


A demonstrator wide-body jet plane flying with Rolls-Royce engines

Professor Richard Parker, Rolls-Royce Group: Rolls-Royce as a modern company is no longer associated with making luxury motor cars. Today Rolls-Royce is what we call a power systems company. In the air in particular, we power the Trent engines which power many of the wide body jets flying around the world today.

Professor Richard Parker standing next to a turbine blade

Professor Philip Ruffles, Rolls-Royce Group: I became technical director in 1989 and had responsibility for the funding of the research at universities. I came forward with a proposal which was that we would offer five years funding in return for which the universities would recruit a certain skillset and would work on problems in a particular technical discipline. And these centres that we set up were then  given the name University Technology Centres [UTC].

Close-up of Professor Philip Ruffles

Dr Mike Howse, Rolls-Royce Group: You’ve got something like 18,000 components precision made in an aero engine. The fan on a Trent 900 engine which powers the A380 airbus is about ten foot in diameter and there are about 22 blades and they’re made by a very advanced manufacturing process.

The research that was carried out at Cambridge was key in developing the shape and the aerodynamics of that blade. Southampton contributed significantly to understanding buzz-saw noise and how you would remove it from engines. These blades have to withstand the impact of birds and then they have to still continue to operate. So there’s a whole range of UTC’s that contributed to one component.

Close-up of Mike Howse with turbine models behind him

Richard Parker: We’ve built a network today of 28 university technology centres worldwide. 19 of those are in the UK because of our heritage but nine are now outside the UK.

It’s important to engage universities because they bring a freshness to our research. The university technology centres are staffed and manned by university people – they’re not Rolls-Royce people – and a good univerisyty technolgoy centre will probably have around 40 people working in it all ranging from professors down to individual research students.

Two students discuss a logbook with turbines behind them

One of the very first university technology centres was in Oxford and most recently we’ve moved the Osney laboratories in Oxford to brand new facilities paid for partly by the government, partly by the university and partly by Rolls-Royce.

Five years is a very short time in most of the industries we operate in so technology there has to be tried and tested and well-proven.

Mike Howse: We have a process of trying to work out what products we will need and what technology we will need in order to satisfy the customer. And so out of that comes the research, and out of that we distill it down with the UTCs to try and work out what it is we should work on. I have to convince the chief executive that this money is well spent and it might not give results immediately. Now the beauty of the UTC system is that you get long term contracts, you can keep really good researchers together. The thing about planning it is to have a reasonably long time frame and be prepared to wait for the results actually to come.

Swirling line drawing showing millions of components

Philip Ruffles: We did an audit and something like 70 per cent of the information that had been transferred to Rolls-Royce had been used either in products or in design processes. The value that was contributed was far greater than the cost that we had invested in the centres.

Richard Parker: University technology centres are not just about delivering technology, they also deliver skilled people.

Man in white lab coat sits at a bench in the distance surrounded by reels of wire, boxes of components

Mike Howse: You’ll see over years in the future quite different aeroengines and that will raise major new areas of technology. The university technology centres are absolutely key in getting on the shelf he technology we need for those future challenges.

Richard Parker: Rolls-Royce has a very strong brand an in chosing a UTC we look at world-class universities and even within those universities look for world-class researchers and professors who have high esteem in the academic world. So it’s in our interest not to dilute the brand but I think the universities also gain by close association with Rolls-Royce, both in terms of recruiting students for the future and their own image in the outside world.

The prize winners shake hands

About the film

Filmed on location at

  • Rolls-Royce Technology Centre, Derby
  • Osney Thermo-Fluids Laboratory, University of Oxford

Produced for the Institute of Physics
Director: Martyn Bull
Producer: Thomas Delfs
Camera: Steve Allen
Editor: Jacinta Madison
Music: Ram Khatabakhsh

Archive footage is reproduced with the kind permission of Rolls-Royce plc, copyright Rolls-Royce plc

Special thanks to Simon Kirby Richard Parker, Philip Ruffles and Mike Howse at Rolls-Royce and Peter Ireland and the students at the Osney Thermo-Fluids Laboratory at the University of Oxford

Further reading

Wikipedia: Jet engine

Leave a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.