Successful IoT deployment: The Rolls-Royce approach

The leading engine manufacturer is using IoT, AI and Big Data to deliver business benefits for its customers.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

There is a lot of hype when it comes to delivering value from advanced technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, but Rolls-Royce is using a combination of these to create business benefits for its customers.

Late last year the engineering firm announced its R² Data Labs initiative, which aims to use machine learning, AI and data analytics to create new services.

At the heart of the labs are what Rolls-Royce calls 'Data Innovation Cells'; groups of data experts who work with teams from across the company's operations. These groups use DevOps principles to explore data, test new ideas, and turn those ideas into new innovation and services in areas such as asset availability, efficiency and maintenance or safety and compliance.

By the end of this year, the company said, it will receive more than 70 trillion data points from its in-service fleet each year and has plans to use this to develop an engine which is "connected, contextually aware and comprehending", it says.

See more: Special report: Harnessing IoT in the enterprise (free PDF)

Caroline Gorski, director of the global ecosystem at Rolls-Royce's R² Data Labs, says the company has 30 years of data integration experience.

The R² Data Labs team, which includes 200 data architects, engineers, scientists and specialist mangers, has helped Rolls-Royce deliver more than £250m in value through engine health monitoring activities in the past 12 months. These activities run on 90-day sprints. During that process, Gorski says the team moves from an ideas phase right through to minimum viable product creation.

"The way you get to something that's worth doing well is via rapid iteration," she says. "We collaborate with our customers, whether internal or external, using a design thinking approach to identify a business opportunity. We rapidly release proof of concepts to demonstrate the validity of that approach."

Making the unknown visible

Gorski, who joined Rolls-Royce in October 2017, has a broad range of experience when it comes to the implementation of advanced technology. She was previously head of IoT at accelerator Digital Catapult and head of business development for IoT at Telefonica.

"The IoT is useful when you know you can derive business benefit by making unknown processes visible," she says.

"If you try and use sensors everywhere, you will get nowhere because it's too expensive and it's too imprecise. Rolls-Royce picks the places where its IoT solutions can make data visible, and which will create significant operational benefits. That, for me, is the key to a successful IoT deployment."

Find out more: What is the IoT? Everything you need to know about the Internet of Things right now

Gorski advises other digital chiefs to analyse their business operations and understand where a lack of data transparency creates a headache. She has seen big-bang instrumentation projects happen and, for the most part, these are difficult to justify.

"They end up being expensive to implement," says Gorski. "It's costly to transmit data and the business ends up with a patchwork quilt of information. It's important to remember there isn't a single solution for IoT instrumentation and you must bootstrap technology together from lots of different suppliers. All that bootstrapping adds costs and creates complexity."

Her experiences lead her to conclude that spotting areas were it's hard to find the right data is key.

"I think if you're going to really make the most of the IoT, the first question you must ask is where in your organisation is a lack of transparency creating you issues. Because that is where you're going to get the value back to pay for your investments," says Gorski.

Finding the right skills around the globe

Gorski, who spoke with ZDNet at the recent Big Data World event in London, says R² Data Labs works with customers, such as private jet operators and shipping companies to come up with new services.

"It's a balance between what gives you pain today and what represents a potential answer -- and there isn't always a sequential step between those points," she says. "The good news is once you have great business cases, you can use that evidence as proof points of your successful approach."

Gorski runs a specialist team within R² Data Labs that scours the world for partners -- be that entrepreneurial individuals or leading-edge companies -- to work with Rolls-Royce.

"We recognise within R² Data Labs that in a world of data innovation, particularly around AI and advanced analytics, it's not possible to build all of those skill sets internally," she says. "It takes too long, it's incredibly expensive and the individuals with those capabilities are in high demand."

Gorski's team brings partners into the organisation to fill skills gaps, either as part of a specialist cell within R² Data Labs or through a joint venture agreement. This joined-up team of internal and external talent then focuses on four technology areas: industrial IoT; autonomy and sensing; blockchain and quantum computing; and AI and advanced analytics.

Making the data work for your customers

The best way to demonstrate how her team works, says Gorski, is through examples. She refers to the Engine Network, which is a tool that allows Rolls-Royce to extract IoT sensor data from engines and health-monitoring systems, and to combine those records into a social network for the individuals who develop and use an engine.

Rolls-Royce engineers and private jet management companies can exploit this data to analyse engine performance. The platform also includes an AI-based recommendation engine that presents issues proactively to engineers, so they are aware of issues before a problem exists.

"They can look at anomalies and compare performance indicators with other engines that perform in a similar way," says Gorski. "This proactive approach creates enormous benefits for our service community and for the end customers that buy our jets."

See: Special report: How to implement AI and machine learning (free PDF)

Gorski also points to pioneering work in the marine business, where R² Data Labs has been using IoT sensors to track ship performance. By combining this information with contextual data from the wider marketplace, the team has created a fuel-efficiency guidance portal for crews sailing Rolls-Royce powered-ships.

The portal was built through multiple iterations. The first deployment took about six months and further modifications were made post-launch. The portal now sits on a secure cloud and its data is available to Rolls-Royce owners.

"The captains piloting ours ships can have real-time messaging from us that tells us how to save fuel, how to sail efficiently and how to deal with challenging sea conditions," says Gorski. "That kind of insight is absolutely transformational when it comes to operating a marine fleet."


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