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March 8, 2007
Small engines buoy Rolls-Royce
Growing demand coincides with order for new model that will go in civilian copters
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Indianapolis jet engine maker Rolls-Royce long has produced workhorse engines for hefty military aircraft. Now it expects an upsurge in engine orders from a completely different direction -- manufacturers of small civilian helicopters.
In two years, orders for small engines have risen 40 percent at the 4,000-employee manufacturer. As a result, a Plant No. 5 line is being changed to handle a small and new 300-horsepower turbine that could drive sales even higher.
Robinson Helicopter of Torrance, Calif., has placed the first order for the 300-horsepower engine. The price and volume weren't disclosed, but Rolls-Royce expects Robinson, the nation's largest maker of civilian helicopters, could order several hundred engines in coming years.
"It's a pretty significant launch order for a new program,'' said Scott Crislip, president of Rolls-Royce's helicopter and small gas-turbine business.
Rolls-Royce won't hire more employees for the project. Its new manufacturing techniques will help keep costs down, in part by making two engines, including the 300-horsepower model, on one line in Plant No. 5, the main production facility off South Tibbs Avenue.
Robinson will use the engine in a new five-seat helicopter it is bringing out, the R66. It will be Robinson's first helicopter not powered by a piston engine. Robinson helicopters typically work as air taxis or haul police, traffic observers or oil-rig crews working offshore.
Discussions also are under way about supplying a similar engine to other helicopter manufacturers including Bell, Enstrom, MD and Schweitzer, Crislip said. Manufacturers are showing renewed interest in jet engines for their fuel economy and lighter weight compared with piston-driven engines.
Rolls-Royce created the new engine using a recently installed computerized engineering and prototyping system that cut development time to 24 months from 36 months, Crislip said. The new engine is called RR300. RR refers to Rolls-Royce, the first time the London-based engine maker has used its own name on a product.
RR300 was derived by engineers in Indianapolis from an older engine in production known as the 250 model. In the 1980s, the company made as many as 1,000 of the engines every year. Shipments dipped as low as 160 a year but are rising again with new interest in small helicopters. The company delivered 300 of the small engines last year.

Call Star reporter Ted Evanoff at (317) 444-6019.

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