Rolls-Royce: Rethinking innovation in the age of disruption
Illustration: Neil Stevens
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Rolls-Royce: Rethinking innovation in the age of disruption

Amit Roy Choudhury — July 2018

Rolls-Royce CTO Paul Stein describes how the company is charting a new path for innovation by working with an ecosystem of partners.

For a global engineering company such as Rolls-Royce, with its rich history of innovation, a rapidly digitizing economy presents a landscape of opportunity and challenge. You only have to look at the predicted revolution in high-speed transportation and renewable power systems to appreciate just how the company’s markets might be transformed. As a result, its senior management teams are clear that its future success is not something that can be achieved in business isolation. Indeed, it increasingly views tightly knit partnerships — many involving the co-creation of products, services and — ultimately — business and customer value — as vital to its future.

Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, feels that collaboration with a rich ecosystem of partners, customers, academia and government agencies provides it with growing opportunities to innovate at a rapid and continuous pace — while confronting disruptive threats head-on.

The 114-year-old British company, which started out as a luxury carmaker, is now a £16.3 billion ($21.7bn) engineering and technology powerhouse, with global operations that span civil aerospace, defense and power systems.

As that highlights, Rolls-Royce has constantly evolved its spectrum of core technologies over the years, says Stein. “As the portfolio grows more complex, a co-creative ecosystem with partners allows us to build on one another’s technological expertise, helping us to develop new capabilities effectively while being efficient with our budgets.”

Paul Stein, CTO, Rolls-Royce.jpg
Paul Stein, CTO of Rolls-Royce

This collaborative approach gives companies access to more resources and brainpower, he says, and ensures that different parts of a technological project can come together in a synchronized and mutually beneficial way.

“For instance, the safety and reliability of a product or service are of paramount importance to a company like Rolls-Royce,” he says. But sometimes such a focus can narrow creative thinking. “Partnering with others helps us explore new capabilities, without having to compromise our existing strengths,” says Stein.
Better together

While there are many examples of great innovation and agility from within its own ranks, Stein feels co-creation and partnerships do more than just trigger innovations they accelerate the scope and speed of delivery — a critical factor with markets being rapidly transformed by digital technologies.

As an example, Stein points to the revolutions in material science where the company is exploring the potential of leading-edge materials such as graphene and new ceramics for use in new engine designs. He also highlights new avenues involving the use of 3D-printing in manufacturing. “But to bring these into the future,” he stresses, “it is necessary to co-create and expand the possibilities of these technologies with partners.”

The innovation approach has given Rolls-Royce a conduit through which it can regularly exchange valuable insights into technologies, ways to improve existing processes and – ultimately — create better outcomes for its customers, Stein says.
Sources of innovation

There are many examples of such co-creation, but Stein cites the company’s extensive cooperation with Singapore’s academic and government agencies as being particularly fruitful. The company has long-standing manufacturing operations in the city-state, with the country a regional hub for its civil and power systems businesses. But Stein describes how it taps into Singapore's major commitments to innovation and the creation of rich talent pools.

“It has been a tremendously positive experience working in the Singapore environment. The government moves very quickly, and we greatly value that agility to innovate. We can propose, refresh or roll out new capabilities here quickly,” he says.

Academic institutions play a key role in that.
“It’s important to collaborate with universities and other technological players in order to get more insights and spot the next winning technology,” says Stein. “This brings companies beyond an insular mind-set and opens them up to fresh perspectives.”

In this case, Rolls-Royce works closely with Singapore’s highly regarded Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), which oversees more than 20 of the country’s research institutes. For instance, Rolls-Royce is currently collaborating with A*STAR to set up smart manufacturing and IoT centers. The company is also a founding member of the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC), a collaboration between A*STAR and more than 50 industry partners.

It also has active programs with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) to explore development of new materials, products and advanced manufacturing. In turn, they work closely with Rolls-Royce’s Singapore-based Advanced Technology Centre, which develops technologies to support core business areas in key fields of research: materials support technology, computational engineering, electrical power and control systems, and manufacturing technology.

As Stein highlights, it is this kind of co-creation that allows Rolls-Royce to achieve its goals faster, while sharing the risk, rewards and revenues of innovation with its partners.

First published July 2018
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