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MRO’s Digital Push Gaining Ground, Survey Finds

Digital thread emerging as next key priority

Organizations from across the aftermarket spectrum are capturing meaningful data and using it to drive value-producing action in their operations, but they face myriad challenges in accelerating adoption of predictive maintenance and related digital advancements. These are among the key takeaways from a survey of airlines, OEMs, MRO providers and other stakeholders conducted by GE Aviation and consultancy Capgemini and shared exclusively with Inside MRO.

The survey of nearly 400 organizations found extensive adoption of data-capturing and analytics. Half of the respondents are using data to drive maintenance decisions in some area. Engine MRO is the leader, with 75% of the analytics adopters using engine data. Component-focused data is used by 53% of analytics programs, with airframe and auxiliary power units (APU) bunched together at 44% and 42%, respectively. 

Considering the extensive availability of engine OEM-provided programs that support the long-term care agreements (LTA) that dominate the engine support market, the high adoption of engine data analytics comes as no surprise. LTAs shift cost burdens from operators to OEMs. Thus, despite the growing use of engine data for analytics, engine OEMs continue to prioritize developing better tools to support their fleets. 

One example is an integration between Teledyne Controls wireless quick-access recorders (QAR) and GE’s Predix platform that automates data flow from the airline environment to GE. The system, developed under an agreement struck by the companies in November 2016, entered service with an unnamed airline in August, and GE says several more carriers are interested.

GE captures data on 30,000 in-service engines, most of it via snapshots taken at critical flight phases, such as climb and descent. While useful, such feeds leave a lot of information to interpretation or omit it from the analytics equation completely. Collaborations like the Teledyne QAR connection put more valuable data in the pipeline.

One of the goals of collaborations such as GE and Teledyne is to demonstrate direct paths for investment in predictive analytics that deliver measurable financial returns to customers. This is important to those who remain on the sideline, the survey suggests, but yet it is just one among equally relevant hurdles. Respondents lumped the lack of a business case among a group of perceived barriers, along with a lack of budget, concerns over data ownership, an absence of tools, a dearth of internal expertise and—somewhat surprisingly—concerns over data quality. A quarter of respondents said all of the challenges were contributing to hesitance in adopting analytics.

Improving data is one issue resonating among analytics providers. While both aircraft and engine manufacturers are expanding their suites of digital services, third-party providers such as Air France Industries-KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI-KLM) are in the game as well. 

AFI-KLM in early September announced that its Prognos predictive maintenance offering will expand beyond select engine and aircraft models into APUs. Subsidiary Epcor, an APU and pneumatics specialist, is developing the tool.

While more data sources are becoming available, survey respondents were largely united in stating that the amount of available data is not holding back MRO analytics. Nearly 75% agreed or “strongly” agreed that “data has grown to the point of exceeding most company’s ability to efficiently and effectively improve business processes,” the survey found. 

The percentage was even higher among companies that identified themselves as MROs, suggesting repair stations are either lagging behind OEMs and airlines in data management or they have access to more data sources. But there are signs this is shifting since the survey collection period, which opened in late March, closed in early May. 

“What I’m sensing now is that all the people that are part of this value chain are getting much more comfortable with the volume of data, even in just the last six months,” says Kevin Larson, chief information officer of AAR Corp. “[Organizations] are putting together projects and mapping exercises to analyze key elements to help internal operations and customers and focus on identifying the relevant data we need.”

As sensors grow more prevalent, data storage becomes more commoditized and computing power expands, predictive analytics gain more tools. While pairing data scientists with traditional engineers is key to turning data into meaningful information, having the right data is even more crucial. 

Sometimes, connections between datasets and outcomes are not immediately clear. This helps explain why OEMs are pushing hard to boost data intake, with an eye to linking it to relevant insight down the road.

“One of the things you don’t know is how you are going to build those relationships. What are the correlations you’re looking for?” asks John Mansfield, GE Aviation’s chief digital officer. “There is a lot of data that you may not think is relevant that turns out to be very relevant when you look at it in certain ways.”

Collecting better data to fill gaps is becoming a higher priority, the survey results suggest. While increasing certain types of data, such as information gleaned from engine cruise segments, can help boost specific insights, respondents were clear that larger gaps—and greater opportunities—exist in extending the so-called “digital thread.” More than 80% of senior executives who participated in the survey agreed that closing gaps in the digital thread is key to “driving business value.”

The digital thread is a data chain that extends from design through the aftermarket and is fed back into the manufacturing process to drive product enhancements and shape designs. Given that an aircraft, engine or component should last two decades or more, the aftermarket’s contributions to a product’s digital chain are vital, and gaps in the aftermarket segment’s chain are detrimental. 

The survey results suggest there are major gaps on the aftermarket side. More than 25% of the respondents said none of their onboard data-monitoring systems were integrated into their core MRO software, and another 40% could not say for sure.

Going paperless is seen as an integral step to connecting strands of the digital thread, and half of the respondents have done so or are planning to be there within 24 months. A quarter of those said they are paperless, while another 20% are on track to be paperless by 2020 and have the path—and budget—allocated. Another 5% plan to be there but do not yet have the resources—mainly funding and labor—planned and set aside. The other half do not plan to be paperless in 24 months.

Capgemini and GE also sought to drill down into what, specifically, organizations are doing with their data. Dashboards, long desired among executives who have embraced metrics measurement, provide a logical destination with a snapshot of key operational parameters. Among the key metrics tracked by respondents: Rates of maintenance program reliability and technical dispatches, stood out at 33% and 29%, respectively. Next came component on-wing reliability, at 22%—the only other metric to top the 20% threshold. 

While the bottom-line survey figures suggest the MRO world has ground to gain on the path to maximizing digital capabilities, those shaping the trends underscore that progress is being measured in short bursts, not long stretches.

“These were the numbers six months ago,” said AAR’s Larson, a survey respondent. “If we were to pose those questions today and compare the responses, would we be trending overall in the right direction? My sense is yes.” 

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