Several days ago, Rolls-Royce announced a brand-new “Airline Aircraft Availability Center.” According to a press release from the company, this facility is aimed at ensuring “every aircraft it powers departs and lands on time, every time.” The company monitors about 4,500 jet engines powering commercial airliners, which operate for a combined 14 million hours per year. The company said its new center will employ data analytics to optimize operations and plan and manage maintenance activities. Unsurprisingly, its SVP of Civil Aerospace Services said, “We are entering a new era of digital connectivity and new services technology which allows us to greatly expand the type of services we can offer….” Rolls-Royce also disclosed plans to make this availability center a hub for innovation, deploying new technologies such as “remote surgery” engineering tools; it is aiming to be using robots within the next five years.
It’s no surprise that Rolls-Royce is deploying this type of center, given it was one of the first companies to introduce the idea of equipment-as-a-service, with its “hour of power” (the company charges airline customers based on the runtime of the engines). While the downtime costs of airlines have recently grabbed headlines, such as Delta’s $150 million data center failure, it’s important to remember that much of these costs are due to lost revenue when airlines cancel flights on a broad scale and are forced to refund (or rebook) passengers on alternate flights. The cost per hour of an aircraft being out of service is at least $10,000. Other assets have higher hourly downtime costs, but Rolls-Royce is incentivized to minimize this because it directly impacts its service level agreements (SLA) – it is only paid when engines are running.
What is interesting is the fact that it is pushing the boundaries of what is possible beyond data analysis alone. For example, the company has partnered with a relatively small Canadian startup, Librestream. The company makes maintenance diagnostic tools for inspection of machines (such as jet engines), which are connected and able to share high-resolution video images, and allow collaboration on both sides of the connection. While Librestream initially targeted remote assets such as oil platforms and commercial ships at sea, Rolls-Royce has seen a strong potential for this technology to allow ground crews to quickly connect to maintenance personnel remotely.
Positive – Rolls-Royce is leading the charge with its focus on uptime. Other companies have begun rolling out remote monitoring of high-value assets, such as Thyssenkrupp with its transportation devices and GE with various power generation assets, but these have been mostly focused on optimizing operations or predicting failures. The former has 24,000 service technicians responsible for 1.2 million assets in the field (responsible for 190 million hours of downtime annually). It has introduced its “MAX” product aimed at arming this service workforce with more information, and also claims to be developing augmented reality tools with HoloLens. Rolls-Royce, on the other hand, is a step ahead, as it is actually deploying technology that impacts how it performs that maintenance in the field. Another interesting company is Vuzix, which markets augmented reality glasses that enhance the knowledge of the field service technician. The company’s connected smart glasses allow for easier diagnosis and resolution of mechanical problems by enabling download of online data and manuals, as well as remote assistance from more experienced colleagues. Such a model is transferable to many industries with extensive maintenance, since this approach is not based solely on downtime, but on improving the way companies share knowledge and repair assets.
However, with a focus on uptime, Rolls Royce’s choice to pursue teleoperated robotics may not add as much value as planned. With companies like RE2 Robotics in operation today it is possible to implement a solution that can meet precision needs, but there is a gap with regards to the speed of these systems. The constant issue across any application for teleoperated robotics is latency of control communications, and as we have seen with Rethink Robotics a lack of speed can spell failure for real-world applications due to a lack of functionality. The goal of remote operated robotics doing intricate maintenance is a grand vision, but is still some time away from being a reality.
By: Alex Herceg