Data science helping Rolls Royce improve aircraft availability

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Using technology and software to monitor, predict and plan aircraft engine maintenance is saving Rolls Royce customers hundreds of overhaul visits a year.

Nick Ward, Vice President Digital Systems at Rolls Royce, elaborated on this at the IFS Unleashed conference being held in Miami, Florida, this week.

He explained that data and technology are being used to remove the uncertainty around aircraft engine maintenance, as engine overhauls can be more accurately planned, as components are monitored and the health of engines checked in real time, keeping engines in service on aircraft for longer.

Rolls Royce is the world’s second-largest maker of aircraft engines after General Electric, and also has major businesses in the marine propulsion and energy sectors. Its large jet engines power thousands of widebody airliners around the world, and it typically overhauls around 1 500 aircraft engines a year.

According to Ward, around 6% of the operating costs airlines incur goes towards overhauling and maintaining engines. Although engines are generally reliable, and fly an average of 5 million miles between overhauls, when an overhaul is required, it is a major and costly event. For this reason, many customers have moved to a ‘power by the hour’ scheme – Rolls Royce realised that airlines were either not qualified or equipped to maximise the life of their jet engines, either replacing them prematurely (to avoid exceeding scheduled life expectancy) or letting them run until they failed unexpectedly. This was costing airlines money, and so Rolls Royce came up with the model of power by the hour, or engine as a service – for a flat hourly rate per engine, Rolls Royce handles installations, check-ups, maintenance and decommissioning. Ward explained that this is such a popular model that some 90% of its engines fall under power by the hour contracts.

Data and technology are essential in making this model work as monitoring of complex engines is essential to the process. By studying how engines are performing, Rolls Royce can optimise their maintenance and keep them running for longer, especially when the engines have more life in them than the airliner realises.

To give an idea of the complexity involved in aero engine maintenance, Ward noted that the front fan blades of a large jet engine can experience 90 tons of force when operating, and the high pressure turbine blades face operating temperatures around that of the sun, and only sophisticated cooling technology makes their operation possible. Technology and data are needed to understand the burdens, temperatures, pressures, and vibrations engines are subjected to.

Rolls Royce uses its Blue Data Thread programme to collect data from multiple sources, such as engine health monitoring and information from airline maintenance management systems, contextual real time engine flying condition and other data sources including maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) data from Rolls Royce engine facilities.

IFS supplies its Maintenix aviation maintenance management software solution to automate the sharing of data critical for Rolls Royce to re-life its engine parts and monitor and track engine components. Maintenix forms a core part of the Rolls Royce Blue Data Thread initiative, supporting predictive maintenance for every life-limited component inside Rolls Royce engines throughout their lifecycle — from during manufacturing through to operations and maintenance.

Ward explained that Maintenix allows results to be put into an airline’s system and their maintenance forecast. “We are very connected between ourselves and customers and understand which engine needs to be moved for what reason.” Many Rolls Royce customers use IFS’s Maintenix solution.

Through multi-variable forecasting, IFS is able to map the data on how an airline expects to fly a particular engine and combine it with Rolls Royce data on expected part life to provide a very accurate predictive maintenance deadline right down to individual part numbers.

By looking at the wear and tear on engines, Rolls Royce can tell if an engine is in good enough condition to stay on an aircraft much longer than it could have otherwise done – “this provides more value for the customer but also means we have to do fewer engine overhauls which involves taking the engine off, flying it around the world, doing a big overhaul, consuming parts, power, energy etc.,” Ward explained.

Rolls Royce typically saves 200 overhaul visits a year because it uses data to predict and avoid engine maintenance, Ward said.

More effective maintenance also translates into sustainability benefits. Ward said that Rolls Royce is focussing very heavily on sustainability and has a commitment to net zero carbon dioxide emissions. “For the aviation industry to continue to thrive and grow, it has to earn its sustainability credentials. Organisations like Rolls Royce, which produce power, which consumes resources and generates emissions…could get a finger pointed as creating a problem, whereas actually we can solve the problem through sustainable aviation fuels, hydrogen power, and influencing the way operators fly. We can play major part in driving down emissions and making the industry sustainable,” he said.

Guy Martin is attending IFS Unleashed as a guest of IFS.