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Rolls-Royce Enlists Virtual Reality to Help Assemble Jet Engine Parts


Sara Castellanos

Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is using virtual reality to aid employees in the assembly of its gearbox, a powerful and critical component of its newest jet engine.Photo: Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC

British aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is using virtual reality to aid employees in the assembly of a powerful and critical component of its newest jet engine, said Paul Stein, the company’s chief technology officer.

The company, which makes engines for Boeing Co. and Airbus SE jetliners, began assembling what it calls the “world’s most powerful aerospace gearbox” last year with the help of virtual reality headsets. Virtual reality, in which a user is immersed in a digital world via a headset, is used to set up the assembly process of the gearbox and workspace beforehand and to train mechanics. The gearbox for its newest jet engine, which is called UltraFan and will be available in 2025, allows different parts of the engine to move at slightly different speeds and also helps reduce jet engine noise, according to the company.

“It’s a very compact design where, unless you assemble things in the right order, you can end up in a situation where the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle can’t be added because it’s right inside the device,” Mr. Stein said. The gearbox is smaller than 1 meter, or 3 feet, in diameter.

The virtual reality Vive headset, made by HTC Corp., is used for training, and allows engineers to first assemble the parts of the gearbox in a virtual environment before assembling them in real life. The software platform for the headsets was made by virtual reality company Virtalis with the help of Rolls-Royce employees and support from its University Technology Centre in Germany, the company said.

The virtual environment allows engineers to ensure there’s enough space and clearance for all of the parts to fit together in the right order, Mr. Stein said. If one part is in danger of hitting another part in the virtual space, the engineer will see a warning.

“Without that technology, it would have taken us much longer,” Mr. Stein said. “We would have had to build prototypes which might have been wrong, and then rebuild the prototypes.”

The gearbox, which is still in the test and development phase, takes the power from the back of the engine and slows it down so that the fan in the front of the engine can move at a different speed for optimum efficiency. The gearbox is expected to offer the engine a 25% fuel efficiency improvement over its first generation jet engine, according to the company. It’s currently being tested at the Rolls-Royce Power Gearbox facility in Germany, where it will run at up to 100,000 horsepower, which is the equivalent of more than 100 Formula One racing cars, according to the company.

Mr. Stein said the company last year also began using virtual reality to help design the flow of manufacturing processes in factories. Virtual reality helps ensure that all machines are in the right position and jobs get passed efficiently from machine to machine. When the logistics is working properly in the virtual world, employees know the optimum factory layout for the real world, Mr. Stein said. Virtual reality was used in the layout of the assembly line for the Trent XWB, a jet engine used by Airbus, and for the gearbox assembly processes in Dahlewitz, Germany.

Rolls-Royce is one of many companies that are beginning to see the potential benefits of developing immersive digital experiences using virtual reality headsets for both consumers and employees, according to analysts at research firm Gartner Inc. While conservative companies remain cautious about experimenting with the technology, some companies are experimenting with ways to use it to their benefit, said Mike Walker, research director at Gartner, in a previous interview.

This year, virtual reality was charted as being the furthest emerging technology along Gartner’s so-called Emerging Tech Hype Cycle, which tracks 32 such technologies that could help executives deliver competitive advantage over the next decade. The overall benefit of virtual reality is expected to be moderate and the technology is expected to reach mainstream adoption within two to five years, according to Gartner.