Why is additive manufacturing important to Rolls-Royce?
Additive manufacturing promises to revolutionize manufacturing and supply chain, from hyperlocal parts manufacturing to infinite customization of components . However, such revolutionary technology poses great challenges for established companies such as Rolls-Royce (a supplier of aircraft turbine engines) who stand to be disrupted the most. However, before a single component can be “3D printed”, the first step is to create a digital model of the printed object . Creating digital designs is one of the core competencies of a modern engineering firm and must be adapted to additive manufacturing before such technologies can be deployed more widely. Rolls-Royce has been making gas turbines for 75 years , and those decades of learning and best practices are embedded in internal company documents and employees’ knowledge. It is a huge challenge to shift the core competency of the company from designing parts for traditional manufacturing to designing parts that utilize the advantages of additive manufacturing, while avoiding its weaknesses.
Designers must account for the fact that 3D printed parts behave differently in the field than their traditional counterparts: their strength and deflection is nonuniform depending on the direction of load application and they can be more prone to premature failure due to repeated loads . To make the most of additive manufacturing, engineers in product development primarily need two new skills. First, analysts must learn how to model the material’s behavior in the real world with computer simulation programs that typically model uniform material behavior. Secondly, engineers need to learn to develop and deploy novel design features that might have been impossible to produce using traditional methods.
What is Rolls-Royce doing about it?
In the short term, Rolls-Royce has been addressing these issues via strategic partnerships and acquisitions. For example, Rolls-Royce is a member of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), a non-profit corporation composed of members from industry, academia, and government with the goal of creating solutions to complex advanced manufacturing challenges . CCAM provides to Rolls-Royce expertise in characterization (i.e. quantifying the nonuniformity of properties) and simulation (i.e. predicting behavior in the real world) of materials used for additive manufacturing . These are two of the key proficiencies that will be essential is Rolls-Royce is to harness the full impact of 3D printing in their product development processes.
In the medium to long term, Rolls-Royce is partnering with other external partners such as JetX and 3D Hubs to educate the next generation of engineers on the intricacies of additive manufacturing . JetX is a team of aerospace engineering students working Rolls-Royce to develop a scale model of a gas turbine using only 3D printed parts, using the experience to gain direct experience in design for assembly and simulation analysis. Such skills will allow engineer to see opportunities to reduce engine complexity via combining multiple parts into one , thus leveraging the capabilities of additive manufacturing and yielding engines with fundamentally different architectures compared to their traditionally manufactured counterparts. This is a ground-up, long term approach to changing the product development process – bring in new talent from universities that isn’t bound by conventional wisdom.
What further actions should Rolls-Royce be taking?
Rolls-Royce needs to work more quickly to disseminate knowledge and capabilities throughout the company, and it also needs to leverage its large legacy fleet as a test bed for experimentation. Additive manufacturing is typically viewed as a cutting-edge technology, used on the latest and greatest new engines, but this is troubling when viewed through the lens of Rolls-Royce’s product portfolio. Almost 50% of their revenue  comes from aftermarket support of an aging fleet, with a commensurate portion of engineering staff dedicated to supporting these aging platforms. Such staff have little opportunity for exposure to additive manufacturing, but it is an appealing deployment location for the technology within the company. Additive manufacturing offers to reduce lead times and inventory carrying costs for old, uncommonly needed components , while the mature engines of legacy fleets are perfect low-risk test beds for replacement parts made with additive manufacturing. Such a strategy could reduce the long tail of the supply chain for legacy products while also raising overall engineering capability to design parts for additive manufacturing.
As additive manufacturing presents the first step change in manufacturing since the advent of computer numerical control (CNC) machining, it brings up key questions for how Rolls-Royce and the wider industry will adapt their product development operations. What techniques can managers at Rolls-Royce use to combat the inertia of 75 years of ingrained habits to extract the most creativity and innovation out of their human resources? How do they balance the need to change and adapt against the safety demands of a highly regulated industry?
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