A patent infringement lawsuit by Rolls Royce against Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies regarding fan blade design for the GP7200 engine used on the Airbus A380 and the forthcoming PW GTF series of engines was decided in favor of Pratt & Whitney. This decision clears the way for P&W to continue to move forward with its GTF engine program.
Rolls-Royce, PLC and Pratt & Whitney are partners in International Aero Engines, who make the V2500 engine for the Airbus A320, have seen their relationship deteriorate recently. Pratt & Whitney, after discussions with Rolls-Royce, determined that it would market its GTF engine itself, rather than through IAE, and with the Rolls-Royce RB285 design gaining no traction with aircraft manufacturers, Rolls-Royce now appears to be left out of the narrow body market, with the CFM Leap-X and PW1000G the engines of choice for the next generation of aircraft.
As the relationship hardened, Rolls-Royce took legal action against Pratt & Whitney for alleged patent infringement regarding the design of engine fan blades. That case, which would have had major financial implications for each firm, has been decided on summary judgment in favor of Pratt & Whitney.
The infringement suit focused on the GP7200 and forthcoming GTF designs. Rolls-Royce had patented a design that had three different sweeps in different direction to minimize airflow turbulence caused by the fan inside the engine. Pratt & Whitney, in developing the fan for the GP7200 engine produced by a joint venture of Pratt & Whitney and GE Aircraft Engines for the A380, also utilizes a sweep design, but in four directions. The court has decided that the differences in the blades are such that no infringement has occurred, and decided the case on summary judgment in favor of Pratt & Whitney.
As a part of the settlement for this case, P&W also agreed to a voluntary injunction not to utilize a three sweep blade on the forthcoming GTF engine series. Since it does not utilize such a design anyway, this injunction will ensures that the GTF program will not be slowed by any potential appeal of that litigation.
The implications are significant:
1. Pratt & Whitney did not infringe, and this lawsuit will not hold up the development of the GTF, which is scheduled to enter service on the Bombardier CSeries in 2013, the Mitsubishi MRJ in 2014, Airbus A320neo in 2015 and Irkut MS-21 in 2016.
2. The GP7200 engine for the A380 does not infringe upon proprietary Rolls-Royce design, and will continue to take a significant portion of the A380 market, including the single largest customer for that type, Emirates.
3. The latest three battles between Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney have all been won by P&W, first with the selection of GTF technology over the RB285 at Airbus and other airframe manufacturers; second, with PW going solo for its new narrow body engine rather than through IAE while bringing in key IAE partner companies to its GTF program, and third; with the patent lawsuit being decided in P&W’s favor.
The competitive dynamics in the aircraft engine market appear to be changing. Rolls-Royce has been on a bit of a losing streak in the past year, with several engine fires that resulted in additional inspections and modifications to the Trent 900 series on the A380, as well as an engine fire on a Trent 1000 destined for the Boeing 787 on the test stand. With an additional engine fire on a Trent 700 engine on a Cathay Pacific A330 that was forced to make an emergency landing a week ago, combined with the loss of the patent infringement lawsuit, last week was not a good one for Rolls-Royce. While the company still holds a favorable position in wide body engines, with leading market share on Airbus wide bodies and a strong order book on the Boeing 787, it is losing its position in the narrow-body market to Pratt & Whitney
At the same time, Pratt & Whitney is on the rise, as its new GTF engine has won virtually all of the announced orders for the Airbus A320neo family, and is well positioned with the Bombardier CSeries, Mitsubishi RJ and Irkut MS-21. With new technology for narrow body aircraft in place, P&W is now looking down the road at utilizing GTF technology for wide body engines. In a recent interview, PW’s Bob Saia indicated that GTF technology could be used in engines up to 100,000 pounds of thrust and PW would likely be developing a replacement for the aging PW4000 series in the coming decade.