S Kalyana Ramanathan visits Derby in England, a city that is all about Rolls-Royce and its aero-engine business.
The next time you are 38,000 ft up in the air, facing some real scary turbulence, you may want to think about this and find peace of mind. The engines, if they are made by Rolls-Royce, are constantly sending data about their health to a data centre at Derby. Every minor detail like temperature, pressure, vibration, speed etc are sent to a computer that analyses the data. Most of the snags can be corrected there and then. God forbid, if there is anything out of the ordinary that needs the engineers’ attention, a ground service team from Rolls-Royce will be on attendance when the plane lands. This is one of the few things that technology from Rolls-Royce’s facility in Derby has been delivering to the company’s sprawling customer base across the world: over 500 airlines and freighters, 4,000 corporations and 160 armed forces.
Derby is all about Rolls-Royce. It has been in this quite little city for more than a century now. There are more buildings in Derby with the famous RR logo than any other corporation here. One in every 11 in Derby works for Rolls-Royce, which makes it the largest private employer in the city. People of the city take great pride in what they do. Rolls-Royce, after all, is not just another name. The name came about in 1904 when its founders, Henry Royce and Charles Royce, met in Manchester. It made its first aircraft engine in 1914. The Rolls-Royce Merlin went on to become an icon in World War II because it powered such fighter aircraft as the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, De Havilland Mosquito and the Avro Lancaster. In 1971, the car and aviation brands were separated. (Rolls-Royce, the car, is now owned by BMW.) The aircraft business was nationalised by the Edward Heath government two years later, but was privatised back by Margaret Thatcher in 1987. Superbrands has named Rolls-Royce as the number one business brand for 2011, “one of Britain’s few remaining global engineering success stories.”
Though it also makes power and propulsion systems for marine vessels and gas turbines, compressors and diesel generation units, the core of Rolls-Royce’s business remains aircraft engines. It is today the second largest maker of aircraft engine after GE. At Derby, the engineers who deliver the live diagnostics based service are part of the Civil Aerospace Services team. From a room that is about less than half the size of a basketball court some 25-30 engineers receive data. It is not exactly an air-traffic control kind of job. But intensity in the room is hard to miss. Despite a bunch of international journalists chattering from the back of the room, not one head turns away from the computer screen in front. A large screen in the room projects graphs and technical charts only these engineers would understand.
Tom Palmer, director of Civil Aerospace Service, says his team’s work boils down to where the engines are — the exact location in air or ground at any given time — and “how are they feeling”. There are around 150 engineers who work in shifts round the clock to analyse the barrage of data that pours in. Two hundred more across the world do the data management and ensure spare parts reach on time. This achieves two primary goals for Rolls-Royce’s airline customers, says Palmer: operational peace of mind and financial predictability — both big worries for airlines around the world.
The numbers Palmer and his colleagues rattle out are mind-boggling. Around 4,000 engines are monitored worldwide. As many as 5.5 million flights are powered by Rolls-Royce every year. Every 2.5 seconds a Rolls-Royce-powered aircraft takes off or lands, which works to 12 billion miles of air travel each year. In all, half a billion engine data pours in every year. The company hopes to add 1,000 more engines by 2015, all to be monitored live.
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So is all this number crunching worth the effort? Of course. In the last three years, Rolls-Royce customers have had 30 per cent fewer disruptive events, which means nearly a third of the defects or problems were nipped in the bud. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine how many lives these live diagnostics have saved. Advanced technology is at the heart of every Rolls-Royce engine. Gross R&D spend is around £1 billion every year, that is around 10 per cent of its topline by 2010 results.
A cross-section view of its typical engine tells the whole tale. The force on each fan blade during takeoff is equivalent to the weight of a freight train. The fan tip speed exceeds the speed of sound. At take off each high pressure turbine blade generates a displacement equivalent to an F1 engine. The core heat when the engine is at its top speed is around 1,700 degrees Celsius. Robert Nuttall, vice-president (strategic marketing) of the civil aerospace division, explains how there could be dramatic improvements to the way the engines work, more so in terms of their environment-friendliness.
The Advance3 and Advance2 programmes that could produce a 3-shaft turbofan engine and a 2-shaft turbofan engine respectively are expected to be in service from 2018. Both these platforms expect to cut fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide emission by 15 to 20 per cent and reduce noise by 12 decibels. The Open Rotor programme, with its distinctive design with blades mounted without the casings, is expected to achieve far greater improvements on all counts. The company says it would consume 30 per cent lesser fuel, emit 30 per cent lesser carbon-dioxide and would be quieter than contemporary engines. This one is expected to be delivered for commercial use by 2023.
This means cutting-edge technology would deliver more powerful engines that would be far less polluting — smoke, sound and the entire works. The best part is the sound that is coming from the cash till. Guess what, Rolls Royce is sitting on a £60 billion order book. The catch is there is no catch.