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Facing huge development costs and a tightly contested market, engine makers have sometimes made archrivals into partners in efforts to compete across an expanding thrust range.

The establishment of CFM and International Aero Engines (IAE) in the 1970s and 1980s set the scene for the mid-thrust battles of the last three decades, but it was the teaming of General Electric and Pratt & Whitney 16 years ago that rocked the aerospace world. To the general astonishment of the industry at the time, the two former adversaries buried the hatchet to partner on an engine development called the GP7000.

Although launched for a stretched Boeing 747-500X/600X that was later canceled, the GE-Pratt Engine Alliance realigned its project to develop an engine instead for the Airbus A380. The resulting GP7200 went on to compete aggressively with the previously uncontested Rolls-Royce Trent 900, currently claiming just over half the market. The engine has also provided GE with an extra link to Airbus, while to Pratt it is a valuable long-term foothold in the high-thrust-engine sector.

The Engine Alliance was forged in an environment of financial exhaustion following the three-way dogfight in the early 1990s involving GE, Pratt and Rolls-Royce over the 777. But now, as engine makers once again face a potential three-way fight over a proposed new 777X derivative, could a potential new partnership be in the offing?

The intriguing possibility that Pratt and Rolls could build on their recently established agreement in the mid-thrust arena to form a new partnership aimed specifically at the 777X is not impossible, says Pratt & Whitney President David Hess. “I wouldn't rule it out. The relationship with Rolls-Royce continues to get better and better, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility. But it hasn't been decided and we'd have to pick an architecture—so right now on 777X we're going it alone.”

The two companies are preparing the ground for future collaboration on new-technology engines to succeed the V2500 and CFM on future single-aisle successors to the A320NEO and 737 MAX later next decade. Following the restructuring of the existing IAE without Rolls-Royce, a move that was officially completed at Farnborough, the first talks over the creation of a new IAE have begun.

“We are starting to have conversations with them [Rolls]) about joint technology programs—everything is on the table,” says Hess. Commenting on IAE and the Engine Alliance, Hess also notes that “these relationships have worked well for us. The GP7200 has been very successful.”

Rolls declined to comment in response to questions over Hess's perspective.

For those looking for clues, there are few, if any, hints from history to see how this might turn out. The 777X engine situation is uniquely different from anything before it. Unlike 22 years ago, when Boeing asked the three engine makers to bid for the original 777, this is a major derivative that the aircraft maker has yet to officially launch, let alone set a firm target for entry into service. Boeing says only that it is aimed at service entry “around the end of the decade.”

Furthermore, Boeing's request for information from the three engine manufacturers calls for demanding performance without even the guarantee that the 777X will be offered with a choice of engines. Regardless of the pure marketing merits of teaming to compete for the 777X, industry insiders say fundamental questions remain over the highly uncertain possibility of Rolls and Pratt being able to agree on a common architecture. The recent spate of technology programs under Rolls's Advance 3 future turboshaft plan points to the continued evolution of advanced, conventional big-fan engines.

This would make the adoption of Pratt's geared architecture extremely unlikely, placing an insurmountable hurdle in the path of such a plan. Furthermore, industry sources ask what Rolls might hope to gain by linking with Pratt in such a way, while simultaneously questioning if a teaming of this nature would even be permissible under international monopoly and merger rules.

General Electric, as incumbent and sole-source engine provider on the extended-range 777-200LR and -300ER models from which the 777X will be derived, is going all-out to protect its turf. The company is developing and testing the first elements of an all-new engine dubbed the GE9X, regardless of the uncertain status of the 777X.

GE Aircraft Engines President David Joyce says: “Boeing has the right to ask all three of us [engine makers] to come in with proposals. The calling card of GE is the technology we're developing for the GE9X. We are in the technology-capture business with the GEnx, [in production for 787 and 747-8] and regardless of when the 777X comes into service, nothing will change our technology-capture plans.”

Bill Fitzgerald, GE Commercial Engines vice president and general manager, says the first GE9X compressor rig is scheduled to run in the first quarter of 2013 “independent of Boeing's timeline, with first core run in 2015 and first engine to test in 2016.”

“We've been working hard with the engine companies,” says Nicole Piasecki, Boeing Commercial Airplanes development and strategic integration vice president. “When you have the level of investment we are spending, we have to know about all the technology that's out there. We also have to consider all the commercial scenarios that are out there.”

Although widely viewed as GE's project to lose, times have changed since 1999 when Boeing agreed to give exclusivity to the Ohio-based engine maker for the longer-range 777 derivatives. At the time, neither Rolls nor Pratt could compete technically with the composite-fanned GE90 growth version. Since then, Rolls has dramatically advanced its capabilities, as witnessed by the development of the Trent XWB, while Pratt is feeling more bullish than ever thanks to the fast-growing success of its PW1000G geared turbofan family.

Pratt is basing its 777X bid on a geared concept designated the PW1095G or PW10100G, depending on which side of the 100,000-lb.-thrust line the final configuration ends up. The engine will have a fan-drive gear system with a gear ratio around 3.5:1 and a fan diameter that will likely be slightly larger than the 128 in. of the GE90-115B. Target bypass ratio could be as high as 15:1.

Rolls-Royce is proposing the RB3025, which is targeted at a fuel burn more than 10% lower than the GE90-115B. Overall pressure ratio will be around 62:1 with a bypass ratio of 12:1, compared with 7.08:1 for the big GE engine. The concept builds on the company's technology programs, as well as the Trent XWB engine being tested for the A350, and would be the first large Rolls engine to incorporate composite fan blades and casing.