November 20, 2017

Dividends from UTRC's technology research, talent are widespread

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
The light-filled entryway to the United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford belie the world-class applied research underway behind its walls.
Photo | Contributed
Bright furnishings belie the world-class applied research underway behind UTRC walls.
Photo | Contributed
UTRC engineers and technicians like Tianli Zhu perform creative problem solving to devise and improve hundreds of products and technology for United Technologies Corp.
Photo | Contributed
UTRC engineers and technicians like Ryan Witherell work in the lab.
Photo | Contributed
UTRC engineers and technicians like Sunilkumar Soni perform creative problem solving to devise and improve hundreds of products and technology for United Technologies Corp.

UTRC By The Numbers

Number of employees worldwide.

Number of countries represented by its workforce.

Percentage of UTRC's 400 technical employees who hold Ph.D.'s

Number of UTRC's worldwide innovation centers. Other locations include Berkley, Calif., Ireland, Italy and China.

Sitting alongside a former runway tarmac in East Hartford is one of the world's foremost corporate sifters of scientific and technological ideas — past, present and future.

It could pass for just another manufacturing facility. But Farmington industrial conglomerate United Technologies Corp. didn't recently invest $60 million to upgrade and expand its flagship R&D lab — into which it pours most of its $3.5 billion annual research and development budget, some of which is supported by state taxpayers — to have it pass for one.

But looks, in many ways, are irrelevant. It is the scientific-engineering explorations occurring inside the sprawling building that houses the United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) on Pratt & Whitney's campus that are most significant and sometimes even beyond imagination. It is one of five global R&D outposts, employing 650, that UTC operates.

UTRC recently opened its doors ever so slightly, to allow a rare public peek inside its research facility and the work being done for in-house and private- and government-sector clients. Because it performs secretive R&D for not just UTC affiliates but others, including the U.S. Department of Defense, a recent media tour provided a highly controlled glimpse at a sample of its unclassified lab equipment and projects.

The applied research taking place at UTRC — bolstered by the facility's recent multimillion-dollar makeover that included 185,000 square feet of new and renovated office and laboratory space — provides all of United Technology Corp.'s divisions with a steady flow of innovation.

Pratt & Whitney, Otis Elevator, UTC Aerospace Systems, and the newly combined UTC Climate, Controls & Security division, into which Carrier, Chubb, Kidde and Edwards units were folded, benefit from research that covers familiar turf such as aero- and thermodynamics, engine-power thrust mechanics, additive manufacturing and 3D printing, as well as more efficient production and quality-control methods for assembling UTC's jet engines, climate-control systems and elevators.

UTRC researchers are also plowing into artificial intelligence, opening the door to "smarter" building systems and software networks and machines imbued with "learning'' capabilities.

UTC Research Vice President David E. Parekh, who is also UTRC's director, said United Technologies has a simple ask of all its technologists: "Not to get blindsided by new technologies."

"On the flip side, we're the ones who are supposed to surprise," Parekh said.

More broadly, UTRC acts as a talent incubator for Greater Hartford and keeps the state competitive with technology innovation.

Inside the labs

During the recent tour, scientists demonstrated "cold spray'' technology used to bond metals that usually cannot be joined using conventional welding tools and techniques.

In this instance, a worn or broken metal part is restored almost to new by jet-spraying metal onto an uneven surface at room temperature until it reaches the desired dimensions. The part then can be machined smooth before installation.

Access to that kind of technology also makes UTRC one of the world's best "fix-it'' shops, officials said. Amid their R&D responsibilities, when a mysterious breakdown or flaw occurs in one of UTC's products, critical teams are expected to drop everything to answer an "all-hands'' call to focus attention and efforts on resolving the problem.

The U.S. Navy benefitted from cold spray technology when a 3,500-pound propellor on one of its ships cracked. The usual fix would have taken eight months and cost $350,000. UTRC cold-sprayed the propellor back to shape in two weeks, billing the Navy $20,000, UTRC officials said.

Perhaps most intriguing among UTRC's long list of applied-research ventures are its efforts around artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In the "autonomous and intelligent systems" lab, UTRC showcased its latest efforts to imbed intelligence into robots, drones and other hardware. For instance, UTRC scientists are working out how to teach machines to learn from their experiences, the way humans do.

By analyzing the volumes of real-time data flowing into their data banks each second and minute, future machines will be able to spot problems and alert technicians before they occur, UTRC scientists said.

Otis Elevator already relies on a network of sensors embedded into lift doors, cable rollers and other elevator hardware, to alert its mechanics when a part or system has failed, or is about to. UTRC's early autonomous-intelligence research led it to team a few years back with its former Sikorsky Aircraft division to design a self-piloting helicopter.

In another lab, there was a demonstration of a "human-machine interaction." UTRC researchers invited participants to don virtual-reality goggles linked to powerful software that lets users "see" and "walk'' through images simulating the flow patterns of a commercial chiller. Donned by UTRC designers and engineers, they provide a real-world visage of airflow patterns in the heart of the unit, allowing researchers to determine ways to increase the chiller's efficiency.

Deep roots and history

UTRC has a long history of contributions to its parent company, the state and various industries. Started nearly a century ago, UTRC's predecessor scientists and engineers at Pratt developed the legendary "wasp'' radial engine that powered Allied aircraft to victory in Europe and the Pacific in World War II; it also helped thrust Pratt into the jet-age with refinement of turbofan engines for commercial and military jets and helicopters.

Its research has improved not only the heating, air conditioning and ventilation in homes and buildings, but also in spacesuits.

As innovator-gatekeeper of UTC's ongoing research and patented intellectual property, UTRC illustrates the impact and prowess of Connecticut's manufacturing sector at harnessing ideas and information, then converting them into global products and new, more efficient production processes and technologies, officials said.

UTRC, said UConn chemical and bioengineering professor George Bollas, "is a perfect bridge'' for parent UTC to be able to work closely with — and capitalize on — its own R&D as well as innovation flowing from other institutions in the U.S. and abroad. UTRC officials said they publicly share some of their research in scholarly papers and at technology conferences.

UTRC also helps Connecticut keep a competitive advantage over other states in technological innovation, said Bollas, who directs the UTC-sponsored Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering at UConn.

"The only way to be successful in what they do is to have a technology advantage,'' said Bollas. "The technology [from UTRC] is the product.''

Mun Y. Choi was UConn provost when UTC in Nov. 2013 pledged $10 million to launch the Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering. Choi is now president of the University of Missouri system, which like UConn, partners closely with its major area employers such as Boeing, agrichemical maker Monsanto and engineering firm Burns & McDonnell.

Choi said UTC leadership "has been very visionary to make the required investment that will make advanced science and technology a key difference in economic and workforce development" in Connecticut.

In 2014, Connecticut's economic-development agency and lawmakers cemented ties with UTC, allowing the Farmington company to access up to $400 million in stranded tax credits, including R&D tax credits, in exchange for UTC committing a half-billion dollars to stay and expand in the state.

Adjacent to UTRC's facility sits Pratt's new, 425,000-square-foot engineering-technology center for commercial and military engines, bristling with much of the latest technology available from UTC's security and building-systems divisions. It will eventually house up to 1,750 workers.

But perhaps UTRC's biggest technological contribution is as a talent incubator. UTRC's 500-person East Harford staff — half of whom were hired in the last five years and who hold master's or doctoral degrees — is performing cutting-edge, often classified research that attracts some of the top minds around the world.

The No. 1 mission for UConn's UTC institute is to be a talent pool for Pratt and UTC's other divisions, Bollas said. Nearing graduation are about 15 UConn doctoral candidates — many specializing in cyber-physical systems, like those found in self-piloting autos and aircraft — and some who will likely land jobs at UTRC, he said.

Worldly impact

UTRC's reach and impact was recently on display during a press conference at UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) in Windsor Locks — a UTRC client — where company officials updated staff, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty and media about its involvement in space contractor Lockheed Martin's and NASA's ambitious Orion space program, which is contributing to the conceptual "gateway'' for missions to Mars.

UTRC has a hand, officials said, in R&D related to UTAS-assembled onboard power systems for Orion. UTRC also is collaborating with NASA on a next-generation propulsion system for passenger jets, technology about a decade away from commercial application.

Ex-space shuttle astronaut Tony Antonelli, now a director at Lockheed Martin, one of UTAS' two primary Orion customers, said that while in orbit he at times contemplated the "unbelievable'' prospect "that engineers around the globe, including from Connecticut," designed, made and assembled all the systems and equipment that rocketed he and fellow astronauts into space and returned them safely home.

"The engineering, it's a complete marvel,'' Antonelli said.

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