How real are all the innovations that are supposed to transform or at least significantly improve aircraft maintenance in the future? Several line maintenance managers at Lufthansa Technik are bullish about the potential of data analytics and additive manufacturing, but they more cautious about the impact of robots and drones.
Digitalization is perhaps the most important MRO technology. “The ability to analyze data, monitor components and predict events will have a significant impact on maintenance processes,” one manager says. He sees benefits in avoiding disruptions, increasing safety, improving planning of maintenance events and supply chains and reducing stocks. “Data is the foundation of improved reliability and optimize maintenance schedules.”
The LHT line managers find using machine learning and artificial intelligence most interesting. “AI can detect interdependences of systems, recognize mathematically relevant patterns and assign probabilities based on big data,” one manager notes.
The line managers say additive manufacturing will offer a whole new range of maintenance applications. One major advantage is speedy prototyping of new components. 3D printing also will enable quick design of new tooling and equipment to improve repairs. In addition, they see possibilities to create scale models of real components to test new equipment. “3D printing significantly reduces the necessary effort to test a prototype, assess it and optimize production and minimize manufacturing cost,” one manager summarizes. “Possible applications are vast on a broad range of MRO activities and we believe the technology will be in widespread use across the industry.”
In contrast, robotics requires preconditions not currently in place, chiefly infrastructure and mobility. “Since the airplane is the most valuable asset, you always try to design maintenance around the airplane, not around your production infrastructure,” one manager explains. “Operations need to be flexible and adapt to maintenance tasks and operational constraints.” He says current robotics are still very immobile. “We believe it will take some time to find robotic solutions that can operate more efficiently than qualified personnel.”
Drones are evolving rapidly, and LHT has tested them. “The technology looks promising,” one manager says. Drones are interesting candidates for visual inspections. But the challenge is recognizing identifiable cues and problems. “We feel that camera optics as well as algorithms to identify and automatically assess a fault, for example a dent on the airplane, might not yet be as reliable as they need to be in order to derive better and more efficient procedures for maintenance.”