August 6, 2012

Pratt's 'pure' innovator rewrote its script for engine design

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
Aeroengineer Paul R. Adams crammed nearly a lifetime's work experience into a few decades, landing him at the pinnacle of Pratt & Whitney Co.'s global engine-design network and enshrinement among Connecticut's top scientists-engineers. Adams stands amid P&W jet engines, past and present, inside Pratt's Customer Training Center at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
Photo / Pablo Robles
From testing cruise-missile motors as a fresh engineer at Williams International and presiding over its push into business-jet engines, Paul R. Adams later had a hand in development of Pratt’s prized geared turbofan. Innovation and focus, he says, were keys to his success at both firms.

Pitch a technical problem to Paul R. Adams as unsolvable and Pratt & Whitney Co.'s top aeroengineer turns sleuth. The questions roll: Why? Try a new approach? What tools will make it work?

Adams learned early that few engineering problems are hopeless. Fresh from University of Michigan in the early '80s, he tested cruise-missile motors for a tiny propulsion maker whose rival was giant Pratt & Whitney Canada. There, he learned to ply technical snags with time and focus.

Embracing that notion, combined with 14-hour days, put him on the fast-track at Michigan gas-turbine builder Williams International. Adams' career there took off faster than the Williams jet-pack flown in the '60s TV series, "Lost In Space,'' developed by legendary turbine engineer and Adams' early mentor, Sam Williams. (The jet-pack was a progenitor to the cruise-missile motor.)

"If they figured out you knew how to solve a problem, they just gave you another problem,'' he said of his grind at Williams that cemented him as one of that company's top engineers. During his 16 years there, Adams also had a starring turn in Williams' successful transition to building engines for the then-burgeoning market for business jets, Pratt Canada's sweet spot.

Now 30 years into his career, Adams, 52, is one of the youngest chief engineers in the history of Pratt & Whitney. Last October, he was put in charge of the East Hartford jet-engine maker's global operations and engineering organizations, including new product development, technology strategy, manufacturing operations, and managing its supply chain.

Adams once had his sights on the CEO chair at Williams but fell short. His jump to Pratt & Whitney in 1999 was in time to have a key hand in the $1 billion, 20-year development of what Pratt bets will be its most lucrative propulsion system ever — the geared turbofan.

Connecticut, too, has embraced Adams. In May, he joined rarefied company as an inductee into the Connecticut Academy of Science & Engineering (CASE). He was honored for his contributions in that arena and to the state's economic well-being, through his leadership of the Pratt team that developed the geared turbofan.

"He just has a great will to succeed,'' said friend and fellow CASE alum Mun Choi, the University of Connecticut interim provost who is former dean of its engineering school. "He's so passionate about what he does … That kind of passion is very important in a leader.''

Adams' other knack, supporters say, is talking engineering like a layman, without all the jargon — ideal for his role as a UConn engineering school advisor.

He can go on about the attributes of the geared turbofan and how the intersection of propulsion technology and airline economics revived Pratt's interest in a concept it had explored and shelved in the '70s as impractical.

Eventually, though, heightened competition from engine rivals such as Fairfield's General Electric and Britain's Rolls-Royce, and a dwindling market for spare and replacement parts for an aging fleet of '60s- and '70s-vintage engines caught up to Pratt. So it swung for the fences with its quieter, more reliable and fuel-efficient geared turbofan. Pratt branded the engine PurePower.

Adams rebuffs credit for PurePower or the F135 engine Pratt developed for the F-35 Lightning II fighter; those were team efforts, he says. However, there is one feat Adams says he is proud to claim, one that was harder to pull off.

That was convincing thousands of Pratt engineers that development of the PurePower had exposed a recurring flaw in its engine-design process, costly to both it and Hartford parent United Technologies Corp. in time and money.

Rather than begin design of each new Pratt engine on a fresh sheet of paper, Adams pushed to mimic car builders who craft a scaled-down model from clay before embarking on a full-size production model. Years earlier, Williams International used a similar design "scalability" aesthetic to punch its way into the business-jet market.

Once the basic engine architecture is in place, variations of the design can be sized up or down, according to the needs of customers and aircraft configurations, Adams said.

He also had to convince a potentially more powerful skeptic, his boss at the time, Pratt President Steve Finger. Now retired, Finger couldn't be reached for comment.

"I got squeezed from both directions on this one,'' Adams said.

Ultimately, he won over both camps. Today, Pratt says the PurePower has drawn more than 2,800 firm orders worth billions from aircraft builders and airlines worldwide — assuring Pratt of more replacement-parts sales for decades to come. The PurePower is configured for the newest single-aisle jets from Canada's Bombardier, Airbus, Japan and Russia. Eventually, it might also power wide-body jetcraft.

The scalability episode also illustrates for Adams a key difference between an inventor and an innovator, which is how he sees himself.

"Invention is the art of creating new ideas,'' he said. "Innovation is defining new ways of creating value. I can invent anything any day. The question is: Is it of value?''

These days, overseeing Pratt's engineering-procurement bulwark means Adams spends more time clad in a suit in meetings. However, he says he manages time to hobnob with other Pratt engineers in forums and on the shop floor.

"I wouldn't call myself an innovation guru,'' he said. "But I'm also responsible for developing a culture that embraces innovation.''

But there was a period in Adams' life where aerospace innovation nearly took a backseat to filmmaking.

Adams took a theater course at Michigan because it was one of the few electives available and a way to meet girls. (It also helped, he says, overcome his fear of large audiences, a handicap for a manager at a company Pratt's size.).

To help one aspiring film-maker stay afloat in her classwork, he helped with her script-writing assignments and found his creative spark.

"I thought for a period of time,'' Adams said, "I could be the suburban Spike Lee.''

Luckily for Pratt, he stayed in engineering.

Read more

Pratt's Paul Adams is ASME's 2012 engineer awardee

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