Digital Propulsion: Propelling air travel to a sustainable destination

The AMRC Composite Centre team that is developing the technologies as part of the £20m project.

A £20 million project to develop light-weight propeller blades that will help the UK aviation sector reduce its carbon footprint and noise emissions at airports, is being carried out by composite researchers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre as part of an industry-led consortium with two other members of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

The AMRC, along with the National Composites Centre in Bristol and the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, is supporting private sector partner Dowty Propellers (part of GE Aviation Systems) for the Innovate UK funded Digital Propulsion project.

The consortium is tasked with growing the UK’s aerospace propeller manufacturing base by harnessing composite technology with industrial digitalisation to cut production costs and increase the performance of future propulsion systems in Europe’s €200 billion aviation sector.

Elaine Arnold, Automation Technical Lead for the AMRC Composite Centre, said: “In a world of increasing passenger numbers the demand for cleaner, cheaper and yet more comfortable air travel has never been greater. To meet this demand, it is vital that the UK maintains and extends its world leading capability in sustainable UK aviation propulsion technologies.”

It is also key to achieving Europe’s Flightpath 2050 vision, which is for: ‘The European aviation community to lead the world in sustainable aviation products and services, meeting the needs of EU citizens and society’.

Elaine says the development of technologies to reduce propeller noise and lower fuel burn through the Digital Propulsion programme demonstrates a clear commitment to these goals.

She added: “The Digital Propulsion project aims to evolve technologies within a new digital infrastructure to realise innovations in propulsion performance and cost.

“Part of the role of AMRC is to explore novel and innovative ways to design and manufacture varying types of propeller blades, from regional to small, including the load bearing structure, the cores, the blade roots and relevant hub connections. This is being carried out alongside the National Composites Centre (NCC) who will be exploring the use of their specific manufacturing and design technologies.

“The other side to it, and much more excitingly, is that both the AMRC and NCC are collaborating to form a new braid that fits these new shapes. Engineers have been coming up to Sheffield and us down to Bristol which means a cross pollination of ideas and for everyone to see that we are better working together.”

Elaine says the work being done by engineers at the AMRC draws on the North’s rich and proud textile heritage and the incredible capabilities offered by a collection of state-of-the-art equipment recently purchased by the AMRC with funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) which will enable the development of novel braiding designs.

She said: “Our portfolio of cutting edge equipment means we’re able to access a wide range of advanced technologies to do this work including finite element analysis, braiding, tailored fibre placement, resin transfer moulding and press forming.

“The next steps will be to look at the braiding of multiple parts of the blade and then the thermoforming of the foam that sits on the inside of the blade. Excellent progress has been made so far and the goal is for us to make a section of the full blade.

“It is very much a collaborative piece of work and a great example of why collaboration across the High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres is of tremendous benefit to industry; engineers from the AMRC and NCC are exchanging their understanding and knowledge of capabilities to find and develop innovative manufacturing methods that will not only reduce costs but increase performance, positioning the UK as a world leader in this field.

“Dowty has flown the flag for the British aerospace industry across the world for many years, and this project will ensure it continues to do so into the future. For the AMRC, the outputs of the programme will be a proven cost-effective route to manufacture composite blades and a springboard for further research and development.”

The three-year programme has allowed Dowty to investigate multiple technologies to design the next generation of composite propeller blades, incorporating new and novel geometries beyond current capabilities offered by existing manufacturing techniques.

Jonathan Chestney, Dowty Propellers’ Engineering Leader, said: “This programme paves the way for new business opportunities within Dowty. The technology development led by the Catapults is allowing us to explore both current and emerging markets and create offerings for prospective customers which are both innovative and cost effective. The cross-Catapult collaborative effort is enabling detailed technology development to occur at a fast pace due to the sharing of resource and expertise, all of which benefits Dowty and, ultimately, its customers.”

The AMRC is working with Catapult colleagues in the Bristol based National Composites Centre and the Coventry based Manufacturing Technology Centre in the ATI-funded programme. They are also investigating the shift from manual to automated blade manufacturing processes.

Additional information

About the AMRC

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is a world-class centre for research into advanced manufacturing technologies used in the aerospace, automotive, medical and other high-value manufacturing sectors.

The AMRC has a global reputation for helping companies overcome manufacturing problems and is a model for collaborative research involving universities, academics and industry worldwide.

Combining state of the art technologies with the AMRC’s expertise in design and prototyping, machining, casting, welding, additive manufacturing, composites, robotics and automation, digital manufacturing and structural testing, has created a manufacturing resource far beyond anything previously available in the UK.

The AMRC is a member of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a consortium of leading manufacturing and process research centres, backed by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852