As Rolls-Royce celebrates key milestones at the Singapore Airshow for the Trent XWB97 and Trent 1000 TEN programs, the engine maker is highlighting the launch of the IntelligentEngine, an all-embracing digital strategy which the company says represents a paradigm shift in the way it designs, produces and supports propulsion systems.

While elements of the digital strategy, dubbed the IntelligentEngine, have been emerging for several years as engines have become smarter and services more data-driven, Rolls-Royce says leaps in processing power, data analytics, connectivity and cloud computing have enabled a step change in the way digital technology can impact the entire engine enterprise. “We see it almost as being as big a shift as going from piston to gas turbine. It’s almost a new way of thinking,” says Rolls-Royce marketing senior vice president Richard Goodhead.

Rolls-Royce has seen the digital footprint of each successive engine generation increase in lock-step with the use of computerized design systems and the growth in operating and performance data. At the same time data from manufacturing and suppliers has increased as the services side of the engine support business has flourished. Now, with the growth of digital capability, Rolls sees an opportunity to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. “It’s a confluence of products, services and digital coming together – so in future they will be inextricably linked,” says Goodhead.

The IntelligentEngine initiative builds on recently established links between Rolls-Royce and tech companies like Microsoft and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) that Goodhead says gives the manufacturer the ability to “supercharge the overlap of products and services.” Rolls and Microsoft agreed in 2016 to integrate advanced analytics into the engine maker’s TotalCare services system based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. Building on these links, Rolls took a further step towards the IntelligentEngine concept in June 2017 when it opened the Derby, UK-based Airline Aircraft Availability Centre as a digitally-enabled hub for engine operations, maintenance and management.

The value of the Availability Center has become widely apparent to Rolls in recent months as the company tackles the Trent 1000 fleet issue concerned with the widespread replacement of prematurely corroded intermediate pressure turbine blades.  Although Rolls acknowledges the issue has been more disruptive than it hoped, Goodhead says the ability to accurately model and predict corrosion rates and the remaining service life of blades has helped minimize downtime in most cases. “In the old world, we would have just had to take the engine off wing. If ever a cloud had a silver lining it has allowed us to say this is the kind of thing we can do with this technology.”  

In December Rolls also launched the R2 Data Labs organization aimed at using advanced data analytics, industrial Artificial Intelligence and machine-learning techniques to develop new design, manufacturing and operational efficiencies.  Based around a series of Data Innovation Cells housing teams of data experts, the Labs are designed to promote data innovation and build on a digital platform developed in partnership with TCS. Complimentary to the Microsoft system, Rolls says the Tata platform enables data to be captured, shared and analyzed more easily across the entire company.

“We are moving towards a world where engines will be connected (to Rolls-Royce and the airline infrastructure), and are contextually aware,” says Goodhead. “In the past, we’d have known what was happening inside the engine, but with the advent of all this data we can access now, we know much more about where the engine is going and how it is being used. That provides insights into how we can optimize the efficiency, durability and availability of the engine.”

“The engine is also becoming much more self-aware through artificial intelligence and machine learning. Ultimately we could see examples of where it has diagnosed an issue and is able to fix itself, perhaps through smart snake robots or a swarm of robots – that’s the pinnacle,” he says.

The Rolls initiative comes as arch-rivals General Electric and Pratt & Whitney make similar moves. GE, and its CFM joint venture with Safran, is developing the ‘digital twin’ concept to reduce unplanned engine downtime. The initiative is part of GE’s drive to become a digital manufacturing company and builds on its Predix software platform for the Industrial Internet. Pratt & Whitney, currently introducing its more sophisticated geared turbofan, has introduced the eFAST data ecosystem to reduce operational disruptions and increase utilization. P&W parent company UTC is currently investing $300 million in its Digital Accelerator business.