I was invited to tour Rolls Royce this week. No, I am not talking about RR the car company. Rather the aero engine manufacturer, based in Derby, just across town from where Soutron is based.
Over 10,000 people work in this amazing engineering business where knowledge and experience defines competitive advantage. The company employs over 50,000 people worldwide making various devices that power aircraft, ships, helicopters, rigs, and submarines.
Derby is where RR designed and built the Merlin engine that gave the Spitfire its power and made it such a reliable and effective fighter plane in World War 2. 80 engines a week were produced here in those war years.
Today an engine rolls (sic) off the line every day. It looks like the film set for a bond film given the scale and its modernity. Seeing the blades of the turbine close up gives us a sense of amazing beauty. It is incredible that something so functional looks as if it is a work of art. Two engines are completed every day. One of those is the A380’s new XWB engine. When you get over the wow and the towering size of the engine, you realise there does not seem to be a lot of activity.
A super human endeavour
Everything seems very calm and very measured, understated. No huge swathes of men and women pouring over an assembly line and someone with watch defining the time to spend adding a module or sweating to get everything assembled. It’s quietly efficient, literally! There is a huge mass of very shiny metal, curved, in shapes that would not be out of place in a sculptors studio; lots of wires and pipes and small but very important “bits” and shadow diagrams to make sure they go in the right place. Ordinary looking people doing a super human endeavour. You start to realise that only the collaboration of lots and lots of people can something so complex be made reliably and with such comparative ease. It takes just two weeks to build each engine.
But then you hear that it costs £100 million to build a test facility and one of the engine tests is running it flat out for 25 hours. Another checks that if a turbine blade breaks it stays within the engine casing to prevent it penetrating the cabin – a multi million pound crash! And then you add up the number of tests that are being performed and the data gathering on those tests for each and every component. And then there’s the way materials are selected and how metals are welded together and the seemingly endless preparations that go into 100% reliability. You make the connection. Two weeks to build is a walk in the park compared to the effort and painstakingly accurate constant attention to every minute detail that reliability, serviceability and efficiency demands.
Learning and development
The parallel with a service industry is striking, especially a software business such as ours. Even the way engines are sold. An engine is about producing power and its when the engine is in service that income is generated, not dissimilar to a SaaS (software as a service) model. Walking into the engineering design offices, you could be in a law firm. Agile spaces allowing teams of people to share their ideas and present to colleagues using lots of tablets and screens. Not a nut and bolt or oil can in sight. Its all about efficiency gains of 1% a year, constant data gathering and analysis, constant invention, constant training. When you look at the site from the air and see the size of the Learning and Development Centre in comparison to other buildings across the Rolls Royce site you get a clear idea of just how important L & D is in a knowledge driven R & D business. It occupies almost as much space as the test facilities and they are pretty big.
In a week when we stop for two minutes and think about the contribution of the many who gave their lives for a collective goal, my visit to Rolls Royce made me stop and think about the importance of how we help large numbers of people work together for our greater good. That’s what information management is really all about.
Image Credit: Julian Herzog
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