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Protocol | Enterprise

Rolls-Royce, hit hard by COVID-19, is embracing in-house AI

The engineering giant is one of many companies beefing up its efforts to develop technology internally.

Rolls-Royce workers.

Rolls-Royce has struggled amid the pandemic as orders for aircraft engines have fallen through the floor.

Photo: Rolls-Royce

The pandemic changed the rules for many corporations, requiring them to embrace new technology and cut costs at the same time. One answer to that paradox: in-house innovation.

That seems to be the case at Rolls-Royce, the $14 billion engineering giant that produces, among other things, engines for commercial aircraft. The company has had to implement tough austerity measures including 9,000 job losses this year after the bottom fell out of the aerospace market as a result of COVID-19 travel bans. But its R2 Data Labs, launched in 2017 to promote use of artificial intelligence and advanced analytics inside the company, still appears to be a priority.

R2 Data Labs is a cross-disciplinary team of roughly 300 employees, and only a few of its workers took voluntary buyouts during the cuts. Its leader, Caroline Gorski, told Protocol that the lab's mandate remains fourfold: make operations more efficient, accelerate the speed at which the company moves, help customers glean those same efficiencies in their own businesses and deliver new revenue for the enterprise.

While a small segment of the cohort sits in a central innovation unit, the bulk of the employees work within the individual business lines — a setup also in use by other companies as a way to encourage adoption of digital applications like AI among rank-and-file workers.

Among the projects of R2 Data Labs to-date is a set of natural language processing models that can analyze unstructured data, like 2D drawings, to help the company better manage the global risks in their supplier network. While Gorski declined to provide the specific amount of savings the application has led to, she noted that it had a "very significant impact" from a financial standpoint, as well as on sustainability efforts. It led to 40% fewer parts being shipped between continents and a 30% reduction in transportation costs.

Then there's Yocova, an in-house data-sharing platform launched in February that runs on Salesforce's Force.com and counts carriers like Singapore Airlines as users. While Rolls-Royce is still experimenting with a revenue model for the offering, it does get some portion of all the transactions that occur on the platform between companies and vendors. Rolls-Royce was also instrumental in launching Emergent Alliance, a consortium of over 50 organizations created to encourage the sharing of data to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

"The idea that any single player in the aviation sector is going to be able to eat all the data and own all the data, [that] is not going to be the argument that wins out," said Gorski.

Rolls-Royce isn't alone in its efforts. An estimated 76% of manufacturers say they increased their use of digital tools this year, according to a new survey of 1,154 senior executives released by Google Cloud earlier this month. One area of focus is supply chain operations: 95% of respondents to the Google survey said those operations were negatively impacted by COVID-19. Many of them will be looking to deploy advanced tech to head off similar problems in the future.

"We're expecting a massive uptick of automation and digitization," said Dominik Wee, Google Cloud's head of manufacturing.

But despite the enthusiasm among manufacturers and corporate America for new digital tools, the transition is difficult and many of the ongoing efforts have yet to produce any tangible benefit for enterprises. It's one reason why companies aren't yet ditching the bulk of their tech vendors. Rolls-Royce, for example, still works with over 750 external partners. It uses Google Cloud, but not as its primary provider for internet-enabled data storage.

One key hurdle organizations face is convincing their workforces to actually use the technology. It's why Microsoft, Amazon, PwC, and others are embarking on multibillion-dollar training programs to educate employees on AI and other tools. At Rolls-Royce, that cultural overhaul is spearheaded by Gorski's team, which has logged over 78,000 hours of training across the organization. And in May, the company made those educational materials available to the public.

"The transition towards a digital culture takes time," said Gorski.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

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J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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