The field trip

So on Monday everyone in the research program I’m in (my job) was required to attend a field trip to the Rolls-Royce plant in Indianapolis. If I could only have learned one thing from the trip it’s that Rolls-Royce doesn’t make cars. I knew that going in since I’m in aerospace and Rolls-Royce is pretty well known for their gas turbine jet engines. The reason I mention this is because every time I said to someone that I’d be visiting Rolls-Royce, they’d inevitably ask what cars have to do with aerospace engineering. So just remember this: Rolls-Royce does not make cars.

Since we had to deal with a time zone change, we had to be on the bus at 6:15 in the morning. Fortunately for me, I was so excited about the trip that I didn’t have trouble waking up. We also had to dress business casual for the trip. The bus ride was pretty uneventful, but quite comfortable due to the fact that we were in a charter bus. We got to the plant at about 9:30 Indiana time and received name tags at the door.

We were actually in what they call the training center which is full of offices, conference rooms, an auditorium, and a museum (they call it an exhibition). We were led back to a conference room where we were given an overview of the company and its history. After two hours of presentations about the company and engineering in general (and lunch), we got a guided tour of the exhibition with a lot of funny anecdotal stories about the company’s namesakes. We saw the piston engines that were used in WWII aircraft (most notably the P-51, but there were Rolls-Royce engines in many others). It quickly moved on to the gas turbine engines starting with turbojets and then turbofans and turboprops all the way up to the modern engines that they manufacture.

After this we got on the bus and headed down the street to their 2 million square foot plant where they machine the parts for and assemble the engines. Here we got another tour by the same guy who took us around the exhibition. We first saw the area where some of the parts of the engines are machined to tolerances of less than two ten-thousandths of an inch (1/3 the diameter of a human hair). We got to see the machine used for measuring these parts as well as all sorts of others for machining them.

One machine in particular was quite interesting. Inside the engines the blades are inserted into a wheel. The wheel has little notches cut in its circumference for the blades to slide into. This particular machine is what cut those notches. It had to make the cut as a single continuous stroke with a blade that gradually went from a point to the final shape of the notch. This is because with multiple strokes you could never guarantee that the blade would end up exactly lined up with where it was before. For this reason, the machine had to be very long and was even on its own slab of concrete isolated from the rest of the factory floor so that worker activity wouldn’t disturb it.

After this we were introduced to how the assembly process works. The process involves something called flow lines which is sort of like an assembly line. The different parts of the engine are put into kits in the order that they’ll be needed and as the engine is constructed, it’s moved around to the different kits. We then moved on into the assembly area where a few engines were being put together. We got to see engines in several different stages of construction.

Beyond this was the testing area. Whenever they finish building an engine, they clean and test it to make sure everything works. Just as we got there, however, a test started (which was loud) so we couldn’t go in and see what the room looked like. So we moved on to the small engine assembly area where the smaller engines for things like helicopters were being built. The interesting thing in this area was the presence of intelligent tool cabinets. In order to open these cabinets an employee must swipe a card. The cabinet is capable of telling which tools the worker then takes out and puts back and can notify a supervisor if the worker uses a tool that he shouldn’t. Since all of these engines need to be built exactly the same, they require that the same tools be used every time.

After this the tour was over and we went back to the training center where the remainder of the afternoon was filled with presentations about co-op and internship opportunities as well as a Q&A with some recent grads from Illinois who work there.

All in all it was a pretty fun day. I really enjoyed getting to see what a real aerospace company actually does. It was very cool.

3 Responses to “The field trip”

  1. kc lc says:

    “…they’d inevitably ask what cars have to do with aerospace engineering. So just remember this: Rolls-Royce does not make cars.”

    Well, yes and no. I mean, there’s still Rolls-Royce Motors (owned now by BMW) and they still make luxury cars. I think that’s the part of the original company people know most about.

    Speaking of the R-R aeronautics company, it’s ironic they exist at all. Charles Rolls died in a bi-plane accident in 1910. Photo of crash: http://www.earlyaviators.com/rollscrash.jpg

    It was a plane made by the Wright Brothers, and Rolls was the first Briton to die in an airplane crash. His partner (Royce) wasn’t too thrilled about the aeronautics industry after that.

  2. Yourself says:

    “Well, yes and no. I mean, there’s still Rolls-Royce Motors (owned now by BMW) and they still make luxury cars. I think that’s the part of the original company people know most about.”

    They did tell us that in the presentation. The division between the two companies actually happened a long time ago. This division of the company has never made cars.

    “It was a plane made by the Wright Brothers, and Rolls was the first Briton to die in an airplane crash. His partner (Royce) wasn’t too thrilled about the aeronautics industry after that.”

    That’s interesting. It could be the reason that they aren’t air framers. Do you happen to know the cause of the crash?

  3. kc lc says:

    I’ve read about it in several different sources. Usually, they say simply “the tail broke off” and he plummeted to his death. Certainly, that’s what happened.

    But I also remember reading that his “Wright flyer” wasn’t a sanctioned model. It was built in France and it had a modified tail section built by someone else. So the Wrights claimed it was a design flaw from a non-standard part that killed him.

    Then again, what else would you expect the Wright Bros company to say? Charles Rolls was the son of Baron Llangattock, an MP in the British parliament and a friend of King George V. He was important. The Wrights were competing for contracts in the US and Britain, so this was very bad press.

    Business is business, I guess.