British manufacturing giant Rolls-Royce has launched a standalone business unit called R2 Data Labs to help customers across its aerospace, marine, nuclear and power systems divisions make better use of data and analytics being driven by their IoT-enabled assets.
In practice, R2 Data Labs - pronounced R squared - will be organised around what it calls 'data innovation cells'. These are mixed teams of experts from across Rolls-Royce designed to explore data and build out new IoT-centric services. These teams will work out of a set of R2 Data Lab hubs, based in the UK, United States, Germany, Singapore, India and New Zealand.
"We see huge untapped potential for our customers to achieve better, more efficient operations through collaborating with Rolls-Royce in data innovation projects," Neil Crockett, head of R2 Data Labs and chief digital officer for Rolls-Royce said in a statement.
So, what is R2 Data Labs?
In practice this will involve teams engaging with internal units like marine or power systems to create new IoT-centric services or unlock operational efficiencies.
As Caroline Gorski, director for global ecosystem and partnerships at R2 Data Labs explained to Computerworld UK over the phone: "We work on a rapid agile development model."
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These teams will work on what Gorski described as "90 day sprints" that could then be targeted at activities within Rolls-Royce - for example, to get visibility of a particular asset or to understand an asset's maintenance cycle.
"Or we might answer questions for external customers about the risk associated with running a fleet of assets in certain circumstances," she added. "For example how a change in shipping route might impact that asset."
The technology platform
The digital platform itself was built on a recent partnership with Indian IT provider Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and existing cloud partner Microsoft Azure.
More specifically, this appears to build on a project Rolls-Royce ran with Microsoft's Azure cloud division last year. The engine-maker adopted Azure Stream Analytics and Power BI to link up sensor data from its engines with more contextual information like air traffic control and route data, weather and fuel usage to get a fuller picture of the health of its aircraft engines.
Using Microsoft's Azure IoT Suite to collect data, and Cortana Intelligence Suite to derive insights, Rolls-Royce could start to offer predictive maintenance and metrics back to operations teams at airlines as an added value service.
In practice this means R2 Data Labs will start to build out a set of API-centric building blocks to speed up its ability to deliver and scale some core IoT services to customers. Megavendors like SAP and Dell are taking a similar approach through SAP Leonardo, and Dell through its new IoT divison.
According to Gorski, this technology platform gives Rolls-Royce flexibility to build and deliver services, to "create those reusable elements" and to "leverage that work where it is appropriate". Further down the line this will look like a library of shared assets and toolkits.
R2 Data Labs also vows to bring industrial AI and machine learning capabilities to customers to help develop more dynamic applications, which will create efficiencies within Rolls-Royce as well as launch new customer-facing data services.
"Using AI to supplement what would have been relatively static models is one area we are seeing really significant progress," Gorski added.
The initial use cases broadly focus on predictive maintenance. R2, Gorski said, is already working on giving its marine division more sophisticated analytics for route optimisation and fleet management, in line with the sort of insight it has long had within its airline divisions. Next it will look to work with the power systems division to build out predictive analytics for rail customers.
A typical Rolls-Royce Trent engine contains evidence of the IoT foundations the company has already laid down.
The engine - found on the latest A380 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircrafts - is fitted with 25 sensors that track everything from fuel flow, pressure and temperature to the aircraft's altitude, speed, and the air temperature.
Gorski didn't want to be drawn into how these services will be priced for external clients, but did say that it could be "on multiple commercial models".
"It might be a traditional procurement model, but also co-creation of IP-based models where we deliver true partnerships with customers or technology partners and share the benefits of that," Gorski said.
She did also say in more general terms that R2 can "improve and enrich those existing relationships," and that "conversations with new customers to talk about our data innovation is a strong differentiator."
The competitive landscape
This is also a sign of the times in the industry, as more manufacturing companies pivot into becoming data and analytics businesses. American rival GE has been playing in this space for some time now through its GE Digital brand and its specialised industrial analytics platform-as-a-service called Predix, which it launched in 2016 to help aviation, healthcare, energy, industrial and transportation organisations make better use of their data.
Predix has since been expanded to include a catalogue of GE and partner app templates to be used off-the-shelf with existing IoT data, as well as a low-code Studio to help less technical users build industrial IoT applications.
Gorski sees this sort of service as increasingly critical to competing in the market.
"I think being able to do this kind of advanced analytics is critical to run a large scale engineering and manufacturing business," she said. "Understanding more of own operations and how to attack value pools in complex industrial processes is critical to meet customer expectations when it comes to levels of service, price, reliability."