Low-code/No-code at Rolls-Royce: Empowering All Employees to Deliver Digital Transformation

A two month proof-of-concept turned into 1,000 citizen developers—and took the aerospace and defense company to the next level of transformation.

There’s huge interest in digital transformation projects at engineering firms. In its 2023 Engineering and Construction Industry Outlook, consultant Deloitte says most companies in the sector are using digital technologies to expand business opportunities, monitor operations and boost profits.

In fact, the demand for digitalization is so great that there isn’t time to get everything done. While most engineering firms have aggressive digital transformation goals, according to software firm Deltek’s recently released Clarity Architecture & Engineering Industry Study, many companies in the sector lack confidence in managing and scheduling IT projects.

In an age of almost constant technological change, how can engineering firms meet digitalization targets faster and more effectively? One potential route to success is using low-code/no-code tools, which can help companies empower non-IT staff to take more responsibility for delivering technology-enabled projects.

Low-code/no-code allows people with low or no programming skills—so-called citizen developers—to create custom software applications, bypassing the need for professional coders and reducing the strain on IT departments. According to a 2022 report, analyst Gartner predicts developers outside formal IT departments will account for at least 80% of the user base for low-code development tools by 2026, up from 60% in 2021.

But while low-code/no-code can help engineering firms to deliver applications faster, University of Waterloo academic Peter Carr suggests empowerment is crucial to realizing the benefits of low-code/no-code. Worse, enabling citizen developers without empowerment carries the risk of organizational harm.

One engineering firm that’s met this challenge head-on is Rolls-Royce. The aerospace and defense giant explained to engineering.com how it’s using low-code/no-code to put the power of software development into the hands of non-IT employees—and why its experiment should be replicated at other engineering firms.

Why is Rolls-Royce using low-code/no-code technologies?

Stuart Hughes, chief digital and information officer at Rolls-Royce, says the firm is adopting technology and data in all kinds of innovative ways, whether it’s using the Internet of Things and sensors to track and trace airplane engines inflight or using digital twins to provide a portal for customers to check performance and maintenance insights.

Hughes says Rolls-Royce’s adoption of low-code/no-code technology, which began four years ago with a proof-of-concept study using Microsoft’s Power Apps platform, is another important part of the company’s data-led digitalization. “This is a continuation of our digital transformation story,” he says.

“As well as being one of our key suppliers, Microsoft is also a key customer of Rolls-Royce—they use our power in their data centers. So, we have a very close partnership. We work closely together. Both companies are known for innovation. We’re always looking for ways can we do things better and how can we unlock value.”

Hughes says one of those conversations centered on low-code/no-code—and showed how the approach could help satiate the demand for technological change. “We sat down as a digital team and we said, ‘with the number of people that we have, we’re never ever going to meet the business demand for digital transformation,’” he says.

“So, we asked ourselves the question, ‘What could we do that would allow 1,000 people to save 10,000 pounds [around $12,800] each, but wouldn’t require a professional IT person?’ And we think it’s a good challenge to ask people—if everybody could save 10,000 pounds, there’d be a significant improvement in our financial performance.”

How did Rolls-Royce get started with low-code/no-code?

Phil Kaufman, head of self-service technologies at Rolls-Royce, says the firm’s proof-of-concept study lasted two months. This experiment focused on the digital manufacturing department. This digitally minded group already built data-led applications and were looking for ways to boost their efficiency and productivity.

The proof-of-concept study used Power Apps to digitize a paper-based checklist for new hardware and software requirements. This initial study centered on usability. The project had to be easy to implement because people in the digital manufacturing group were completing this project above and beyond their day jobs.

Rolls-Royce’s recent Citizen Digital Expo had a booth for the company’s citizen developers. (Image: Rolls-Royce.)

Rolls-Royce’s recent Citizen Digital Expo had a booth for the company’s citizen developers. (Image: Rolls-Royce.)

Kaufman says one of the benefits of using Power Apps is the platform has a familiar look and feel. Most non-IT people already use Microsoft’s suite of Office products, such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint. That familiarity boosts usability and helps business users start prototyping potential software solutions to business challenges.

The initial proof-of-concept study proved the capabilities and strengths of the Microsoft platform. Kaufman advises other engineering executives thinking of using low-code/no-code to take a similar approach: work with small teams and find a use case.

“That kind of relationship does you a massive favor because the group can feed you their requirements and then you can have an easy conversation back and forth,” he says. “The feedback loops become short, which is quite a rare thing in development. So, it’s a good collaborative opportunity to start driving something positive forwards.”

How has Rolls-Royce rolled out low-code/no-code across the business?

Hughes says the initial proof-of-concept study proved how a user interface is crucial to success. Any low-code/no-code platform must look professional, feel familiar and be simple to use. “What can we do to make this easy to adopt?” was a constant question for the team, according to Hughes.

That design-led approach was critical as other use cases were identified. The IT team worked with users to refine the platform. Rolls-Royce also supported early adopters or “champion super users,” who spread the benefits of low-code/no-code across the business.

The company has created a set of instructions and style guides to help people create a simple Power App quickly. It also provides four-day Microsoft courses for individuals who want more in-depth training.

Rolls-Royce has online communities on Yammer and Teams, where people can chat about low-code/no-code techniques. The company also has an internal app store, so employees can check to see if someone has already developed an app that meets their requirements.

Citizen developers at the company have created a range of apps so far, including a Kudos app that helps employees pass on praise and an analytics dashboard that visualizes enterprise data. Hughes says these “micro innovations” have produced benefits that added up to between 8 and 10 million pounds in cost efficiencies and savings through 2022.

Yet the biggest win comes from empowering non-IT staff to create their own software solutions. “Not spending money is incredibly important in our business,” he says. “But I honestly feel this is much more about empowering people in digital transformation and people feeling that they can improve their day-to-day work life.”

How is Rolls-Royce continuing to empower business users?

Rolls-Royce continues to expand its use of Power Apps. The company ran a Citizen Digital Expo recently that was attended by 500 end users. Citizen developers were given a booth at the Expo. They could demonstrate their apps and attendees could chat about how similar developments might work in their function.

Kaufman says the Expo improved collaboration and he advises other engineering executives to use similar techniques to boost engagement: “You’re going to enable reusability, the opportunity to upskill and you’re going to encourage face-to-face interactions that grow your community and take it to the next level.”

Hughes says it’s also important to recognize that the Expo was organized by the Rolls-Royce low-code/no-code community. Rather than being sponsored by the IT team, with a strict set of content guidelines, the firm’s citizen developers crowdsourced their own event.

“There were 500 people through the door because the stands were genuinely run by people who wanted to have a stand to show people what they’d done,” he says. “I think it was incredibly important that the Expo was crowdsourced. So, the big part of our story is engagement—500 people attended the event and there’s now more than 1,000 people in the low-code/no-code community.”