CIO interview: Stuart Hughes, chief digital information officer, Rolls-Royce

The aerospace giant uses internet of things and sensor technology to create a personalised digital twin for the airlines that fly its engines, but the benefits of further data science and analytics could be even bigger

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Stuart Hughes, chief digital information officer (CDIO) at Rolls-Royce, is driven by a desire to use data to give the aerospace and defence giant a competitive advantage.

“If you think about what digital transformation is about at Rolls-Royce – especially since I’ve been there, but the process did start before I arrived – then a lot of what we do in civil digital is based on the internet of things,” he says.

Formerly at JCB and, Hughes became CDIO at Rolls-Royce in February 2019. He says the opportunity to find creative solutions to business challenges at one of the world’s most famous engineering firms was the kind of career opportunity he’d been craving.

“I love the innovative side of IT,” he says. “For the first 20 years of my career, I worked in most of the innovative dot coms in the UK, and then established group CIO-level leadership at JCB. So, for me, it was a natural step forward of still leading that large enterprise IT group but actually being able to really innovate and specialise.”

Creating intelligence

Hughes explains how his team is working on the internet of things (IoT). Sensors on planes track the performance of engines as they fly through the air. These sensors collect what he calls “truly big data”, which is transmitted back to Rolls-Royce’s offices where teams of specialists monitor the engine data to ensure everything is as it should be.

However, Hughes says the data also allows people back at base to undertake much more detailed, long-term work. It’s here that information from the IoT and a collection of on-plane sensors helps the company’s data scientists to create a competitive advantage.

“We’re looking at the signals, and planning and optimising our maintenance, to make sure we understand when the engine will need maintenance, making sure we have the parts in the right location, making sure that the work is done to the right specification, and making sure everything is optimised, so that we can do our best,” he says,

The key to this detailed analysis of information is Rolls-Royce’s big data platform, known as Merlin. Data that comes into the firm is sent to the cloud and processed and presented in a collection of applications called the IntelligentEngine.

“Merlin sits on Microsoft Azure, so the IntelligentEngine is a collection of applications that we’ve written on top of the cloud,” says Hughes.

“We’re constantly looking into how we can optimise and improve our product, how we can feed back information to the engineers, and how we can make the whole process and value stream much more efficient using digital technology – and what we’ve called our IntelligentEngine vision.”

Personalising insight

Hughes says the IntelligentEngine should be seen as a digital product and service that runs alongside the company’s physical engines.

Rather than just being a tool that provides business insight to internal employees, the application also gives customers an opportunity to track and trace how their engines are performing. “They can see the life of every single part inside the engine and any maintenance activity that’s coming ahead – it’s all available to them in a collaboration portal,” he says.

“It’s all about making sure the information is reliable, so we have lots of data science and lots of machine learning that helps pilots understand how they can fly our product better, how they can be more fuel efficient and how they can optimise their journey”

Stuart Hughes, Rolls-Royce

Hughes says one way to think of the customer-focused view of the IntelligentEngine is as a personalised digital twin. Since he’s been in situ at Rolls-Royce, the aim has been to make sure as much insight as possible is passed to the people who buy and fly the company’s engines.

“We’ve been moving from treating an engine as something separate to providing a personalised maintenance package for the engine to make sure it runs and is optimal for our customers,” he says. “If you think about what we’re trying to do in civil aerospace, we’re trying to make sure the engine is always available.”

Hughes says Rolls-Royce’s reliance on data science and machine learning capabilities continues to increase. He says it’s crucial the company is able to scan for the right signals among the huge amount of data it collects and to pass this information in a timely manner to the airlines that use its engines.

“It’s all about making sure the information is reliable, so we have lots of data science and lots of machine learning that helps pilots understand how they can fly our product better, how they can be more fuel efficient and how they can optimise their journey,” he says.

Embracing agility

Hughes recognises that the ability of Rolls-Royce to continue making the most of its data is dependent on access to high-quality internal talent.

One of the keys to successful digital transformation projects for a large enterprise like Rolls-Royce is making sure data scientists can use the tools at their disposal effectively. He advises other digital leaders to make a similar investment in data science capability.

“They’re professionals at finding needles in haystacks,” he says. “Invest in connecting your product and invest in connecting your factories and bringing data together, and you will generate incredible insight. That’s fundamental to success.”

Read more interviews with manufacturing and engineering IT leaders

Hughes suggests the core message for modern CIOs is that size definitely matters when it comes to pursuing effective digital transformation initiatives.

“Your IT department can never be big enough,” he says, commenting on the constant demand for technology-led change in blue-chip businesses.

“Your IT team can never scale quick enough or go fast enough. It can never be agile enough. So, how do you enable people to be the best that they can be? And that’s my personal mantra, which is constantly looking for a better way, rather than always looking for perfection.”

This sense of experimentation comes from Hughes’ previous roles, particularly when he worked in fast-moving dot coms. He says the focus on agility has been one of the big changes he’s brought to the IT department since joining Rolls-Royce.

“We’ve always got to be looking at what we can do next. And a lot of the things I’ve bought from dot coms – design thinking, agility, lean – are about finding the smallest things that we can do to overcome the challenges we have,” he says.

“Let’s create a design thinking session to think of the simplest way to solve a problem. Let’s create a sprint to think about how we can prototype a quick solution that helps us learn and understand. And then let’s move forward from there and continue to iterate and improve.”

Empowering everyone

Hughes says the move towards agility represents a significant shift in the role of the IT department and its relationship with the rest of the business. In the past, people wanted to write specifications, hand over a complete package of requirements that never changed, and receive a perfect working system from IT.

“That’s not what it’s about anymore,” he says. “You’ve got to partner with the business. You’ve got to create the simplest solution. You’ve got to make it very easy to adopt – and that’s one of the messages we’ve tried to hone here.”

That’s certainly been the case during the past few years, particularly since Rolls-Royce has started to embrace low-code/no-code solutions. Hughes’ colleague, Phil Kaufman, who is head of self-service technologies, explained to Computer Weekly recently how the firm is using Microsoft Power Apps to allow citizen developers in business functions to develop their own applications.

Rolls-Royce runs sandboxes in which staff can develop and test apps to meet the needs of individuals, teams, departments, or the entire business. The sandbox gives citizen developers the opportunity to create scalable low-code apps that can boost productivity, as well tools for rapid prototyping, research and development, testing and employee engagement.

Once again, data is key. Analytics dashboards supported by Power BI help Rolls-Royce to capture and visualise data to enable the company to drive continuous improvement. Hughes says the low-code approach is paying big dividends. He estimates the benefits added up to between £8m and £10m in cost efficiencies and savings through 2022.

While the monetary benefits are clear, Hughes says Power Apps also provides a platform for employees to pursue and achieve their digital transformation targets. That empowerment is increasingly important in a digital age, where every member of the organisation – not just IT professionals – needs to know how to make the most of technology and data.

“The huge win is people feeling empowered,” he says, suggesting that the money saved from using low-code technologies is just one important factor. “There are many other benefits that, as a CIO, you get from this low-code approach that are maybe not as obvious at first. So, for me, the benefits are really wide and not just about cash.”

Piloting change

Over the next couple of years, Hughes wants Rolls-Royce to make even more of its investment in low-code technology and the data platforms the company has already built.

“The Power platform community will continue to grow,” he says. “And as we have already made a big investment in data and analytics, we want to build a platform that allows us to look at a lot of the datasets that we have and provide them in a self-service manner via Power BI to more of our employees.”

Whether it’s focusing on IoT and digital twins or allowing people across the rest of the organisation to start building their own solutions to business challenges, Hughes says the aim of the company’s data strategy – just like when the firm’s engines take to the sky – is to reach the right destination.

“The technology is still developing, and people are still working out how to do these things, how to engage with people and how to make adoption easier,” he says. “That’s how I see digital transformation in Rolls-Royce. It’s continuing to give our employees more co-pilots to make them more productive.” 

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