Rolls-Royce: demonstrating the power of immersive technology in the aerospace and marine industries

Employing just under 50,000 people in 46 different countries and working across five key business areas in Civil and Defence aerospace, Marine, Power Systems and Nuclear, Rolls-Royce is using immersive technologies to bring what the company describes as “significant operational improvements” to its  operations and processes.

The Emerging Technologies team within the Future Technologies Group (FTG) is focusing on themes  such as imaging and computer vision, robotics and remote operations, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. The scope of the Emerging Technologies team also includes exploiting application opportunities for AR and VR. It’s the first step in making the technologies a key enabler for the company’s future vision, with the plan for it ultimately to become part of Rolls-Royce core product technology.

VR and AR at work

VR technology is currently in use in key divisions to enhance operations across Design, Manufacturing & Assembly, Aftersales Services, Training, Marketing and Customer interactions, while there are AR pilot projects for applications across the product lifecycle in  all five businesses. Both technologies will find applications in autonomous marine vessels, nuclear power plants and fully remote operations in the future. And VR is already being used to ground-breaking effect in developing what the company is calling the “world’s most powerful aerospace gearbox” for its next generation engine, which is set to revolutionise the aerospace industry by offering fuel savings of 25% over the original engine.

Visualisation toolsets are being employed in design, manufacturing and assembly processes, as well as in repair and overhaul, offering the ability to identify potential issues early on and find solutions before the process moves into the physical world. The technology also offers the opportunity to bring engineers from different sectors of the business together with key stakeholders, optimising design and engineering solutions to make them compatible for manufacturing early in the product lifecycle. And it’s not just product design and manufacture. Immersive technologies are also being used to design new factories and optimise existing facilities.

Dimitris Triantafyllidis, Emerging Technologies Manager for the Future Technologies Group within Rolls-Royce, explains that immersive technologies have been used for many years in the company’s Friedrichshafen site in Germany for preliminary and early stage product design and overview. “It has been very useful to be able to see how all of the components and modules fit together at the design stage before actual manufacturing has started.”

The potential for digital development

The technologies also provide a new way of interacting with data, as Ariane Remmert, from the Future Technologies Group, explains. “Previously we were working with 3D in a 2D environment, now we can take 3D into a 3D space.”

This is particularly important for an aerospace business that builds engines which have accumulated more than 100 million flying hours. AR technology is could be deployed to allow teams access and disseminate the vast amounts of data generated, to provide greater insight into customers operations and offer a high level of customer support. Within its Services division, a global network is devoted to maximising the time customer aircraft is available to fly.


Coping with the challenges

There are some challenges still to be tackled Ariane says, with one of the main issues being the hardware available. While Microsoft HoloLens has been a good fit for their requirements, she explains that the off-the-shelf hardware has not yet developed to its full potential.

Within the company also there has been some scepticism about the technology. “People who are familiar with the gaming world or have knowledge of its technology don’t see the benefit of this in an engineering environment,” she reveals. However, the FTG team has made huge advances in changing perceptions, particularly through its VR Fridays programme, which invites teams across the company to experience the technology first-hand through weekly demonstration sessions. “The reaction to this has been very positive,” she says. “People are now seeing the potential of the technology and we’re really building team spirit in this area.”

Outside the company, within the wider sector, perceptions are also changing she explains. “We attend a lot of external technology conferences and up until now the focus has been on developments in immersive technologies for gaming, film and entertainment. More recently however the attendees have been talking about the technology in engineering and manufacturing spaces.”

Future vision

She agrees that things are slowly changing in the wider sector but feels it’s too early to comment yet on what the full impact will be. “I think it’s more about looking to the future and the changes that will bring. Fundamentally however the new technologies will change the way we work. The technologies provide a much more intuitive way of interacting with data for example, but they will also change how we work with physical objects.”

VR technology is currently being employed to help train Rolls-Royce engineers in the assembly of a critical component of the company’s pioneering power gearbox that can slow down the engine and allow its fan to move at a different speed for increased efficiency. The gearbox’s small size and operational complexity pose a very specific challenge and engineers practice assembly through VR in advance of working on the actual components, to save time and limit component wastage.

But it is in the area of future products that this technology offers the most promise, particularly in remote controlled and autonomous marine vessels, controlled from a manned land-based centre. The on-shore crew could use interactive smart screens, voice recognition systems, holograms and surveillance drones to monitor operations in a system that is part of Rolls-Royce’s innovative Ship Intelligence programme, enabling customers to transform their marine businesses by harnessing the power of big data.

Globally, AR and VR technology will enhance production processes at Rolls-Royce, giving teams around the world the potential to collaborate through visualisation. There is also potential to open the technology up to key suppliers and customers, providing systems where data can be shared and external collaborations facilitated. The team confirms that, in the future, AR and VR will become core product technologies.

Words by Bernadette Fallon

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Aerospace, AR, Augmented Reality, Engineering, Marine, Rolls-Royce, Virtual Reality, VR