Rotax: Go Big? Or Not?

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As a journalist, Iíve come to recognize a certain look when I ask a victimÖerr, I mean, a source, a question I know is going to be sensitive. If the question is getting close to pay dirt, the person suffering the interview adopts a certain Cheshire cat look that implies to me: if only I could tell you.

I saw the look several times last week at the Rotax factory when I asked about higher-horsepower engine development plans. I donít expect companies to answer these questions honestly, but itís fun to ask them anyway. Based on the answers I didnít get and the looks I did, Iím more convinced than ever than Rotax has a mid-horsepower engine in the skunk works, at least at the whiteboard stage. The director of the powertrain division, Francois Tremblay, hinted that Rotax is looking in this direction, but he offered no details. He did say that the trend toward light, four-place aircraft certified under CS23 revisions, as exemplified by Flight Design's C4, has caught the company's attention.

Consider the trajectory. Two years ago, Rotax introduced the 912 iS, a pretty techy little package with electronic fuel injection and FADEC control. In April, they followed with the iS Sport, really just an improved variant but one with better torque, which should appeal to the U.S. market where constant-speed props arenít allowed on LSAs. Clearly, the aviation division has some juice in a company thatís dominated more than 10 to one by terrestrial recreational engines. Those projects represent no small investment.

During a plant tour, you can see the sense of Rotax capabilities. I had a couple of molar chilling moments when we were ushered by yards and yards of state-of-the-art machining cells capable producing any engine part imaginable and in volume general aviation hasn't seen in multiple decades, if it ever saw it. Itís exaggerating to say they could dump iron ore and bauxite in one end of the plant and crate up finished engines at the other end, but not much. The amount of modern manufacturing technology and expertise that Rotax has developed through its other markets just begs to be leveraged into aviation.

But begging doesnít change reality. In that manufacturing base driven by high-volume recreational markets, Rotax has some definite advantages over Lycoming and Continental, mostly in terms of rapid prototyping, manufacturing capability and sheer economics. Having built more than 120,000 aircraft engines, including certified versions of the 912 series, itís hardly an unschooled upstart. But like Lycoming and Continental, Rotax would face the same soft market with OEMs sales just trickling along and the two other engine companies have the advantage of long-sunk costs on engines that have generally been considered proven. Thatís a sobering consideration if youíre about to throw $20 million or more to develop a new engine that might sell but a few hundred a year, if that. I'm skeptical that the CS23 revision is going to substanially ramp up global margin, although it may help.

The wide spots in the market seem to be at the 160- to 180-hp power point and around 300-hp, which is where Continental and Lycoming are with the 550 and 540 series, respectively. Starting modestly, how about a four-cylinder engine with fuel consumption about 20 percent less than the competition and a weight that's 10 to 25 percent less? Thatís essentially what Rotax did with the 912 iS, against both its own engines and Continentalís O-200 and Lycomingís O-230. Besides the better fuel specifics, the Rotax is lighter and by anyoneís count, itís a more modern engine. Itís designed to run on mogas, too, even E-10 mogas. In fact, Rotax encourages it.

But is that enough to push the button on a big project like a clean sheet engine? Are buyers really sensitive enough to fuel costs to demand a more economical engine in this power range? My guess is, frankly, they are not, even if they complain about the price of fuel and the lack of innovation in the engine market. But that might change if the replacement for leaded avgas costs $7 of $8. I know this at least one consideration in Rotaxís deliberations.†

Despite being part of a company that thrives on volumes in the thousands, Rotax understands how to make money in the low-volume world of general aviation. Since the 912 iS was introduced, the company has put about 500 into the field, they say. There may be a little market expansion there, but most of those sales go to customers who would have bought some version of the 912 anyway and many have just chosen to go with the more expensive, improved product. In the end, selling engines isnít a lot different than selling soap.

Around Rotax, youíll occasionally hear a famous quote from CEO Jose Boisjoli, who said he didnít know anything about aviation, but he sure understood and appreciated the passion of the people who practice it. Thatís an interesting attitude and I suspect one that makes it possible for aviation engineering groups inside Rotax to develop business cases with good margins, but low overall profits that accrue over many years. And if you think much about it, thatís what itís going to take to develop new products in GA because for the foreseeable future, there arenít going to be any high-volume grand slams, rather singles and doubles that play out over decades. Continental seems to be following the same strategy with its diesel investments. (I visited the plant this week to see improvements they've made in production and qaulity control.)

From what I saw last week at Rotax, I think the decision to go forward with thisóor notómust be very difficult. All that manufacturing capability and expertise makes such a product eminently doable, but sometimes the larger challenge is resisting doing a thing just because you can.

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Comments (12)

"In that manufacturing base driven by high-volume recreational markets, Rotax has some definite advantages over Lycoming and Continental. " your are correct Paul. GA for Rotax as a primary market is far-fetched. My guess is that Rorax will keep the 912iS concept and experiment with higher hp engines.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 11, 2014 5:31 PM    Report this comment

' there aren't going to be any high-volume slam dunks, rather singles and doubles that play out over decades.'

As a baseball fan with that Cheshire cat look... I've yet to see someone dunk a baseball - other than using one to hit a target and dunk a person.

The difficulty of their decision to go forward really had an affect, eh? ;-)

Posted by: David Miller | June 11, 2014 5:43 PM    Report this comment

Meant to change that to grand slam...

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2014 10:57 PM    Report this comment

With the two US engine manufacturers still living off basically "old" technology for the low and mid-range power engines, I believe that Rotax will have the market to itself IF they build a high tech engine that compares favorably by weight and cost AND can run on the alternative fuels coming soon. Diesel technology -- while tempting -- just doesn't seem to appeal to the rank and file US pilot/owner. Turbocharging a small gas engine to increase efficiency doesn't, either.

Aviation isn't really going anywhere right now so units produced and shipped to the US won't -- initially -- be high volume but IF the stars aligned and an airframe manufacturer could build a decent two and four place airframe at a price point where such an engine would find a willing home, Rotax would be appropriately positioned. The C4 or a lesser variant could be such an airplane.

Flight Design is betting on the 'come' on a FAR Part 23 update and I hope it comes to fruition BUT ... I wonder if it'll be in MY lifetime before I'm relegated to a wheel chair and diapers!

Part of the problem is that the FAA is -- so what else is new -- sitting on its keister while the market AND desire for a decent product are rapidly slipping away as the active pilot population continues to erode. At Sun-N-Fun 2014, a nervous FAA announced that it would move on the medical petition and/or potential Congressional HR 3708 / S2103 mandates and promised an NPRM on same ... where the heck is it, Mr. Huerta? More than five years ago, the FAA started work on the FAR Part 23 update and ... where the heck is it, Mr. Huerta? All you've produced to date is a hoard of documents talking about it ... the proof is always in the puddin'. The light sport segment has proven that there is some demand for lower cost airplanes but the 600KG/1320 pound MGTOW limitation makes it nearly impossible to build an airplane that's anything but a play toy. The few good ones just can't offer enough bang for the buck with that limitation.

The FAA just doesn't "get" it ... the world is passing the US by BECAUSE of their intransigence.

Imagine -- if you will -- if the light sport MGTOW was raised to, say, 1,800 or 2,000 pounds. Imagine an aviation world where FAR Part 23 WAS updated and allowed manufacturers to build a useful airplane at a price point where it could be justified by US pilots. Lotsa "what if's" but ... if we could just get the FAA bureaucracy off their butts and DO something, aviation might find new life. In such a world, Rotax will be properly positioned and you can bet that's what they're doing ... PRE-positioning themselves to be the preeminent manufacturer of high tech small and medium sized aviation engines. Iron ore and bauxite IN, 916iS engines out ... I say! Go Rotax.

Wholda thunk we'd be saying such a thing 10 or more years ago!

I am smitten with the Rotax 912iS and am going to test fly one momentarily. I'm making a purchase decision but wish that I had a wider field of choices other than those limited to light sport standards. If I could buy a two place airplane with decent range, enough room to carry something larger than my lunch bucket and which didn't cost an arm and a leg while -- at the same time -- meeting some sort of driver's license medical standard, I'd be "on it" ... like a ... Cheshire cat!

A Rotax 150HP engine on an appropriate airframe is precisely what is needed to start the aviation ball rolling again. Using one in a retrofit situation is one thing but hanging one on a likewise clean sheet USABLE and AFFORDABLE airplane is quite another. I'm hoping that the stars do align and something like that does happen.

Good on Rotax for trying.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 12, 2014 2:14 AM    Report this comment

Have you ever noticed that after the thousands of years that mankind strived to fly free like the birds, the greatest obstacle to flight would not be physics, but man himself (i.e. government bureaucracy). "We have met the enemy and he is us"...God help us.

Posted by: A Richie | June 12, 2014 9:24 AM    Report this comment

" Diesel technology -- while tempting -- just doesn't seem to appeal to the rank and file US pilot/owner." I can tell you this with certainty: diesels will have vastly more appeal, the morning after leaded avgas is outlawed.

Perhaps the biggest element of that appeal is the ubiquity and the likely endurance of kerosene. The airlines will be burning kerosene for at least another 100 years. Automotive gasoline? Its intervals between radical re-versionings are more like 20 years. It's tough to live with a 20-year ROI on any vehicle that's not dedicated to commercial use. Who would've thought that we'd be at a point where our engines are likely to outlive their fuel supplies? Well, that's where our government has taken us.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 12, 2014 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Thomas you are correct. But I would suggest that it is not only our government. It's a global market, politically and profit driven, China, Germany and other countries are in the game on track and closing. The kid (government) with the most marbles wins - the American GA end user is not in the game.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 12, 2014 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Didn't BRP show a few prototypes of bigger engines at Oshkosh ~10 years back? IIRC, they had ~180hp and ~300hp variants. Unfortunately, after the show they announced they wouldn't be bringing them to market.

Posted by: John Clear | June 13, 2014 9:27 AM    Report this comment

Much of Rotax's success is that it does not have to bother having its engines certified for most buyers, who fly under European microlight regs.
When a motor does have to be certified, I think they cost EURO2,000 more.
Once they start getting more powerful, the engines fall out side the microlight rules, (which limit power to 100 HP for a two seater) and the full weight of the FAA milk machine will fall on them.
The FAA have been looking at the years of delay in certifying the Robinson turbine helicopter by ESEA and rubbing their hands at the chance to show they can be even more obstructive...
I know of at least one project in South Africa, which developed a liquid cooled, electronic injection 3 litre V six, all aluminium road gas 300 HP motor which ran like a dream and was significantly lighter than the large-bore air-cooled traditional motors.
But when they looked at how much it would cost to certify, it was put on the shelf, never to return.
Of course Rotax has more resources of all kinds than a small workshop but even so, the certification costs will probably be the decider, rather than technical matters or even immediate sales potential.

Posted by: John Patson | June 13, 2014 9:27 AM    Report this comment

Cost and value are what are killing GA. Rotax now makes great engines but at about $30K for their 100 hp fuel injected 912 iSc I am not seeing a lot of value for the high cost. The only thing it has going for it is the light weight as is required for many LSA aircraft. If a manufacture or retail customer has a choice as they did with the Diamond DA-20 they overwhelmingly chose the Continental IO-240. I know I would much rather fly behind a Lycoming IO-233 ($24,900 and 115 hp) over a Rotax 912 iSc (~$30,000 and 100 hp). I do hope Lycoming and Continental develop lighter engines so they can be used in more LSA aircraft. I also hope Rotax develops a higher power engine to help push Lycoming and Continental to utilize electronic engine management.

Posted by: M Kett | June 13, 2014 9:35 AM    Report this comment

Not too many years ago, Rotax had a V-6 under development. They called it the mini-Merlin till RR threatened to do stuff...

Posted by: Ed Wischmeyer | June 13, 2014 1:17 PM    Report this comment

Paul, There are many people that think that Rotax should not forget it's roots, light, low cost, 2-stoke engines. They have been slow discontinuing 2-stroke engines and leaving a gap in the market for light, reliable, engines. Rotax eliminated the powerful, 2-stroke 618 at 75hp in favor of the 912 at 80hp. The 912 is much heavier and much more expensive. There is a market for light, simple aircraft . However, there are no good engine solutions except the venerable Rotax 582 and the 582 could use 10 more hp for many applications. If Rotax added a little electronics to a Rotax 618 for failure prediction and fuel metering (easy to do with the low cost of sensors now), we would have nice, cheap, light, reliable engine in the HP sweet spot for many light aircraft applications.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | June 19, 2014 3:25 PM    Report this comment

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