Taking flight

Photo: Jet Engines Australia

Developing a locally made, ultra-high performance jet engine might sound like an impossible task, but it’s one that Jet Engines Australia is undergoing, while utilising the latest in rapid product design technology. Manufacturers’ Monthly finds out.

 Technology dominated this year’s AFR Young Rich List. At the top of the list were Atlassian founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar. Next were Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, founders of graphic design software as a service company Canva. Rounding out the top five were Collis and Cyan Ta’eed, who brought online creative marketplace Envato to world, and then founder of real estate technology company Compass, Ori Allon.

While the stories behind each start-up are significant on their own, they all lacked one element – hardware. The perils of a hardware start-up are well known, including long development times, and greater expense incurred before a product can go to market, but elsewhere the stirrings of a revival of the hardware start up scene are beginning to be felt, as technologies such as 3D printing, digital design, and simulation reduce the time and cost involved with prototyping. If the AFR’s rich list is anything to go by, this thinking is yet to catch up with the VC circuit.

One company that is trying out the hardware product development trajectory is Jet Engines Australia. Which although only a few months old, has come out of a long period of development on the part of cofounder and chief technical officer, Terry Burton, as Philippe Bonnet, chief operating officer of Jet Engines Australia, described to Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“The idea behind Jet Engines Australia is to commercialise the technology that Terry Burton has developed. This engine design is actually part of a process to design an ultra-high performance jet aircraft known as the UltraJet 1672A aircraft. Burton decided to design his own jet engine because there was no suitable engine available for the aircraft he wanted to design.”

The UltraJet 1672A aircraft designed by Terence Jets began as the result of a childhood dream that turned into a Guinness Book of Records award for the smallest jet engine. From there, Terence Jets has sought to develop an ultimate performance aircraft for air racing, defence, and private use. A critical component is the jet engine.

“Burton is building a very high performance, single pilot jet, that will have similar capabilities to a F-18,” said Bonnet. “In doing his design for this aircraft, he realised there’s no engine out there that can actually meet the requirements for what he wants, in terms of size, power, and manoeuvrability of the aircraft.”

While this very specific application led to an engine design for the specialised motorsport of air racing, defence, and private applications the process of building the engine has also opened up other markets. This expansion of applications followed the growth of interest in start-ups entering the aviation sector.

Traditionally, aerospace engineering, and the manufacturing of engines especially, has been centralised in a few major manufacturers. Now, as the technology to develop and build an engine has become more accessible, and the market for flying devices has opened up, Bonnet and Burton are hoping to take advantage of a new wave of interest in home-grown solutions for the sector.

“As we’ve had the globalisation of industry and aerospace in particular, the capability within Australia has diminished over time,” said Bonnet. “Given that there’s very innovative growth areas such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 3D printing, and digital prototyping, this is an opportunity to bring some of that capability back in to Australia.”

In 2014, Australian researchers at Monash University and Amaero Engineering built a world first, 3D printed jet engine. Milestones such as this have democratised the creation of the once highly complex technology behind jet engines, something that Bonnet is well aware of.

“Traditionally, if you’re building an engine for a civilian or military aircraft, your development time could be very long. For instance, GE have only recently designed their new turboprop engine and it’s the first clean sheet design in 30 years.

“What happens in industry is there are only a few manufacturers, so the imperative or motivation to come up with new designs is very low because it’s very costly and the time to develop is quite long,” said Bonnet.

What Jet Engines Australia have done to overcome this is simplify the architecture of the engine, use advanced digital prototyping, and combine 3D printed parts with commercial, off the shelf components.

“The more parts you add increases complexity, and then you have increasing reliability problems, cost, and weight,” said Bonnet. “Our design is quite simple, we’ve got a single, axial flow compressor and a single centrifugal compressor, and then we’ve got a single turbine, so by having just the one single stage it means you just need one shaft as well for that turbo jet engine.”

This not only reduces the time it takes to develop the engine, but significantly decreases the cost, allowing for the product development to be done locally, in Australia.

“It’s home grown, Australian technology. We are using existing technology, but in an innovative way, to develop engines,” said Bonnet.

At this point in the company’s progress, the engine design and digital protype have been completed, as well as a 3D printed manufacturing verification model of the jet engine, and the company is preparing to manufacture a physical prototyping for testing.

“These days you might call it a design algorithm,” described Bonnet. “It’s a series of calculations that can be automated and, depending on what inputs you put into your system, help develop the optimal configuration of the engine. That’s basically what’s able to give us the ability to design to all of the requirements of the customer. We’ve got a design with 200 pounds thrust and if someone comes back and wants 300 pounds thrust, we could easily develop that in a short amount of time.”

Once the physical prototype has been tested, Bonnet envisions working with local manufacturers to realise the commercial range of engines. The TB400 turbojet engine range was released at the Pacific 2019 exhibition in Sydney this October.

“We don’t see ourselves developing the capability in house to manufacture, so we want to work suppliers such as 3D printing and CNC machining companies.”

Flight paths

 Having come up with the design, the next step for any hardware start up is to find a market. While remaining flexible to the customer, the sudden outcrop of unmanned aerial vehicles, whether for logistics, military, or transportation uses, presents an opportunity for a simple, but effective jet engine design. This is an area that Jet Engines Australia are keen to tap into.

“Because of the advent of UAVs, optionally manned vehicles, there’s a lot of innovation at the moment, and different configurations, and that’s where we see our range of engines can meet a lot of those evolving requirements where nothing exists today.”

However, the initial interest of the company was in using the jet engines for applications such as target drones, for armed forces to test their defences against attacks by missiles. Other areas where the engine could be used are closer to the ground, with high speed mobility applications for the movement of troops, materiel, fuel, or other supplies in need. This morphing of potential uses is part of the hardware start-up process now, that becomes closer to software in its initial release, then refinement as the customer base firms up.

“At first we saw there’s interest in the engine developed for the UltraJet 1672A at Terence Jets, for different applications so then we thought, ‘Ok, we’ll look at developing this business of Jet Engines Australia’. Then, along the way, we found that there’s interest in other areas, so that’s why initially it was target drones but now we see there’s a lot of interest in developing unmanned drones for cargo delivery systems.”

Bonnet cites both Amazon and Uber’s investigation of drones for cargo delivery as areas where his jets could be used. With such final customers as these, the potential for a hardware start-up such as Jet Engines Australia goes well beyond what was previously thought possible. With cost barriers to product development broken down, indeed, Jet Engines Australia is self-funded by its co-founders, the product development of hardware similar to jet engines is no longer the domain of large corporations, as Bonnet reflected.

“I’ve been in engineering my whole life and to participate in this world of UAVs has opened up my opportunities. What’s difficult in Australia in terms of your commercial start up hubs, is that there’s a lot of focus on media start-ups, software start-ups, financial start-ups, but there hasn’t been interest in the deep tech start-up phase but we’re starting to see that improve,” said Bonnet.

As incubators designed to facilitate the needs of hardware start-ups open up across Australia, both inside universities and outside, the process of developing hardware can continue to open up.

“We’re dealing with actual detailed engineering and physical products, rather than the software system.”