Innovative virtual reality courses are showing airline engineers how to carry out complicated maintenance procedures
„Rolls-Royce have embraced digital solutions across the business … that is really motivating and exciting“
Virtual reality has become a “game-changer” for training Rolls-Royce’s engineers, with the nascent technology now more accessible thanks to the “massive drop in cost in the past 18 months”, according to Steve Buckland, the organisation’s civil aerospace customer training manager.
Stationed at the industry giant’s headquarters in Derby, Buckland and his team of eight instructors have developed an innovative VR training experience to help airline maintenance personnel practise highly complex tasks.
“There was a problem we needed to solve,” says Mr Buckland, “and that was due to the size of the engines. The Trent XWB engine is the largest in our fleet, and it is so big it does not fit in complete form through the freighter door of a Boeing 747 – it has to be split into two parts.”
Initial training on how to split the engine still takes place in person, via an immersive eight-day course at HQ or at the Seletar base in Singapore; but the refresher training required after this will tend to be sporadic, as and when the engineers need it. This has significant cost implications, which the virtual course created by Mr Buckland’s team easily remediates.
“Consider what would happen if we have a customer who wanted to physically split an engine, and demanded that we ship over a training engine and a stand,” he says. “You’d be looking at about £100,000 in costs. And if we had to ship it in an emergency, the price might go up to £250,000. So this VR training experience paid for itself, and more, on its first application.”
Mr Buckland continues: “The main purpose for this virtual course is not to teach people how to disconnect fuel or pipelines, or flanges on an engine; as aerospace engineers, they already know that. This course focuses on what is quite a hefty piece of ground equipment. There are controls and adjustments that you need to make, and jacking systems on the stand which are fundamental to the process.”
Across the business
In time, the virtual software will allow engineers to practise from the comfort of their own premises; and if they need a few refresher courses, those are available, too. Given that the most recent estimates suggest that demand for air transport will increase by an average of 4.3 per cent per annum over the next 20 years, this facility has come at the perfect time.
“The ultimate aim is to deploy this type of engineering training via the internet,” Mr Buckland says. “We’re on that route now, and advancements are happening on an almost daily basis. Soon people will be able to log in from wherever they are in the world to view an instructor.”
Mr Buckland is upbeat about how the revolutionary VR experience will save time and money for Rolls-Royce in the decades to come. He continues: “I’m 61 but I’m as enthusiastic as a 16-year-old about this technology. I spent 25 years in the Royal Air Force and have been with Rolls-Royce for 20 years. In my training career I have seen talk and chalk through to 35mm slides, death by PowerPoint, computer-aided animation instructors.
“And now we’re going down the augmented and virtual reality route, so we have spanned an entire spectrum. It’s important to note, though, that you still cannot substitute a very experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructor to support and deliver the training. But this VR solution will certainly prove useful.”
Mr Buckland is full of praise for his pioneering employers, and adds: “Over the last few years, Rolls-Royce has embraced digital solutions across the business, and we have certainly been early adopters in this VR training area. That is really motivating and exciting, and long may it continue.”